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Inside: How to get to the Maldives, what to pack, and why you should go. Plus reviews of the W Maldives and the Sheraton Maldives.
Here we are, at the halfway mark of Round the World #7, and if not for a bit of luck in Abu Dhabi and a minor miracle in Doha, Qatar, I might have missed the Maldives entirely.
But before I move on to that adventure, let’s answer the all-important question…
Where are the Maldives?
The Maldivian Archipelago of 26 atolls stretches over 500 miles from North to South and forms a natural barrier across the Indian Ocean. Located about 600 miles off the Asian continent, its nearest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka.
The entire country consists of hundreds of tiny, idyllic islands scattered across an expanse of brilliant blue ocean.
How many islands, you ask?
Well, the exact number of islands depends on the time of day you ask. Low tide adds to, while high tide subtracts from the country’s landmass. But within the chain of 26 atolls, it is estimated that there are approximately 1,200 coral islands and hundreds of small sandbanks.
Flights to the Maldives
How do you get to the Maldives? The answer to that question brings me back to our airport saga.
The vast majority of commercial flights to Male, Maldives arrive from Colombo, Sri Lanka, or Doha, Qatar. From either of those airports, the flights are extremely affordable.
This is the primary reason my friend Susan and I built Abu Dhabi into the itinerary (a quick flight from Doha on Qatar Air) before the Maldives, and Sri Lanka after.
The Abu Dhabi saga
So we arrive at the Abu Dhabi airport at 10:00pm after a full day spent exploring the city. We are bursting with excitement for our redeye flight to the Maldives.
As we get in the line for check-in, I glance at the departures board and notice that nearly every flight shows delayed or canceled.
While the weather outside seems fine, as it turns out, the problem is fog. Enough fog to cause the virtual shutdown of the Abu Dhabi airport.
Having spent months researching the limited flight options to the Maldives, I experience an immediate sense of dread. If this flight doesn’t go, we are in big, big trouble.
We’ll be lucky to get to the Maldives at all, much less by tomorrow.
But Susan remains positive, so I try my best to share her optimism. As our departure time approaches, miraculously, it remains “on time” while all others are delayed.
We board the flight right on time thinking we have dodged a major bullet. But a delay in takeoff turns our already slim 50-minute connection in Doha into an all-out sprint with only 15 minutes to catch the flight.
I have never run so fast while carrying luggage in my entire life.
But, by some miracle, we make it. We touch down at 7:30am exhausted but grateful to be there.
The Maldivian Customs Experience
And then just as we are beginning to relax, we have an immediate reality-check on Maldivian culture at customs. Since Susan and initially met up in Paris a few days ago, we decided to each buy a bottle of wine to take with us to the Maldives.
However, the Maldives is a 100% Muslim nation and, it turns out, bringing alcohol (as well as a number of other things) into the country is strictly prohibited. And make no mistake, their customs officers WILL find it.
Now, inf my defense, I’ve visited a number of Muslim countries before, and never heard of a rule as strict as this one. Needless to say, I’m less than thrilled, but what can you do? You can’t exactly argue with customs agents.
I’m just thankful the wine only cost a few euros. Other arriving passengers lost far more expensive duty-free items.
(Note to the Maldivian Tourism Bureau: this information should be front and center on your website. I checked my guidebook after we left the airport and though this is mentioned near the back of the book, it also says that they will issue you a receipt for the items confiscated and return them to you upon departure. This is NOT the case. This storage policy was discontinued in 2011 due to lack of space at the airport.)
If you’re planning a trip to the Maldives, check the Maldives Customs Website for the official list of what is banned. If you are carrying any of the items listed in your luggage, trust me, they will find it.
And now, back to vacation mode…
With the flight and customs drama behind us, it’s time to get back to why we’ve come to these beautiful islands in the first place.
Exhausted and wine-less, we clear customs and are thankful to see our cheerful W Maldives representative eagerly awaiting us.
Moments later we are relieved of our bags and whisked away to the nearby seaplane terminal where the W is one of only a few luxury hotels to maintain a lovely, private departure lounge.
We have the lounge all to ourselves and wait just a little under an hour for two other guests to arrive who are booked on our same seaplane. While we wait, we enjoy snacks and complete the resort’s check-in process.
The Maldives Seaplane Flight
Once in the air, my mood immediately begins to improve and suddenly I’m wide awake.
The seaplane flight is one of the things I’m most looking forward to in the Maldives. I’ve never been on a seaplane before and what a place for your first flight!
Susan and I both score window seats and settle in for the short 20-minute flight to the hotel.
From the air, the vast blue ocean seems sprinkled with tiny turquoise circles of coral and sandy paradise. Some uninhabited, others home to small luxury resorts with thatched bungalows perched over turquoise lagoons.
It’s one of the most incredible flights I’ve ever taken and easily one of my top 30 extraordinary travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Since I have studied pictures of the magnificent W Retreat & Spa Maldives for months, I recognize the tiny spot of island nirvana from the air immediately.
The W Retreat & Spa Maldives
Our seaplane touches down with a salty splash and we taxi to the W’s dock. Awaiting our arrival, a team of W staffers clad in all-white, resort-casual attire.
After a warm island welcome from the hotel staff, we’re swept away on a golf cart for a quick tour of the island before arriving at the “Beach Oasis Retreat” that will be our home for the next two nights. (W Retreat properties don’t have rooms, you know, only retreats.)
And what a retreat it is.
From the luxuriously-appointed, spacious interior to the decadent indoor/outdoor open-air bathroom, everything in this thatched-roof slice of heaven is first-class.
But the real WOW-factor awaits just outside the glass doors…a sundeck featuring a private pool, barbecue grill, lounge chairs, and a circular daybed for lounging the day away in style.
And as if that isn’t enough, just steps from the pool on the other side of swaying palms, our own private stretch of sand complete with umbrella, two more lounge chairs and direct access to the sparkling clear blue lagoon.
While the romantic design elements of the retreat are clearly lost on two single girls traveling together, the luxury element is most certainly not!
All thoughts of sleep forgotten for the moment, we change into swimsuits, kick off our shoes and set out to explore the island.
The W Sweet Spot
The first thing we investigate is the W’s Sweet Spot.
A signature of W Retreat properties, Sweet Spots are located throughout the resort and provide free ice cream, beverages, ice, and towels 24/7.
No matter where your retreat is on the island, you can be sure there is a Sweet Spot lurking dangerously close by.
Thorough travel writer that I am, I select an ice cream from the freezer. I decide I should probably try each variety over the course of my stay, just to ensure I cover all the bases.
It’s all about you, dear readers. And if there’s ice cream to be sampled, you can count on me.
Ice cream in hand, we continue on to check out the pool, main beach and a few of the restaurants. Then we stop by the dive shop to collect our snorkel gear before heading back to the retreat (I love calling it that).
Since the island is tiny, this tour takes all of about an hour so we spend the afternoon snorkeling and relaxing on our own little beach. Later, we change to meet my PR contact, Tara, for sunset cocktails at “SIP” – the resort’s prime sunset spot.
In signature W-style, you don’t sit in chairs at Sip; you lounge on daybeds as you sip your cocktail and watch the sun set over paradise. Absolute bliss.
After sunset, Tara suggests a tour of the resort’s Extreme WOW suite for tomorrow. Along with a peek at their other room type, an Ocean Oasis Retreats.
With plans for tomorrow in place, Susan and I savor a delicious dinner at the resort’s main restaurant, Kitchen, at a table literally in the pool.
I now know that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve had lobster pasta with your feet in a pool.
Postcards from Paradise – Day 2
The next day, it’s time to get out on the water for a little kayaking.
In my diligent pre-trip research, I discovered that the W has see-through kayaks! I mean, seriously, see-through kayaks…how cool is that? I’ve never seen one before so I’m dying to get out on the water and check it out.
The W’s motto is “whatever, whenever” and when I arrive at the water sports bungalow on the beach, the see-through kayak is waiting for me.
Since it’s a 2-person kayak, Susan and I venture out together and she is kind enough to do
most all of the paddling while I snap away with my camera (I’m going to make a photographer’s assistant out of her, yet!).
It’s so unique to be able to look directly through the kayak at the coral and fish below. We both loved it!
After paddling around for a while, we spend the rest of the day lounging poolside and inspecting Sweet Spots for any offerings we may have missed.
Ocean Oasis Retreats
Later, we meet up with Tara for a suite tour. The Ocean Oasis Retreats make up about half of the resort’s 78 retreats and are all located directly over the water.
They are almost exactly the same as our retreat, though a bit smaller, but it’s hard to beat an overwater bungalow for spectacular accommodation. (Especially for those planning a honeymoon!)
Read More: Honeymoon Paradise in Tahiti
The overwater retreats have direct access to the lagoon but aren’t at all near the beach. We actually preferred that our retreat was right on the beach but, again, we’re not on a honeymoon!
Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with either room type.
The bottom line? There are no bad retreats at the W Maldives.
The Ocean Haven Villa
Next, we tour the Extreme WOW villa, the 2-bedroom Ocean Haven. And yes, are extremely wowed.
In fact, as we walk in, the first word out of our mouths is, “WOW!” and I suspect this is not an unusual reaction.
The best feature of the Ocean Haven is the gigantic sundeck perched atop the lagoon. The pool is large enough to serve an entire hotel and there’s plenty of room for entertaining (I can only assume that anyone who can afford this kind of WOW does a lot of entertaining).
Sufficiently wowed, we head back to Sip for sunset.
After sunset, another incredible dinner awaits, this time at the seafood restaurant, Fish. (Sidebar: Don’t you just love the clean simplicity of how W names things? They just tell you what it is, no fuss.
Two of their boats are called Dream and Soul . The dive boat is simply called Under.
The gym? Sweat. The Spa? Away.
We meet the chef and even get to inspect the lobster cage tethered to the restaurant’s dock. At Tara’s suggestion, we both have the lobster prepared Maldivian-style and it’s quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Ever.
Notes from Nirvana – Day 3
The next day, it’s time to get in the seaplane and fly back to the main island of Malé for the next leg of our Maldivian journey – a boat transfer to the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort.
I’m so sad to leave but content in the knowledge that my years-long obsession with visiting this resort was completely justified.
There are so many exceptional things to highlight but one of my favorite things is the castaway feel of the island. Though the resort was at almost 100% capacity while we were there, you would never have known it. The retreats are so divine that many guests choose to while away most of their days in privacy, venturing out only for dinner.
As a result, the public areas of the island often feel deserted, like you’re vacationing on your own private island. There’s a sense of isolation and tranquility that oozes from every sandy corner, every swaying palm.
Yet, when you need something, anything…the staff is there at a moment’s notice.
That’s my second favorite thing about the W Maldives, the staff.
W calls them “talent” and I can certainly see why. Due to the remoteness of the location, all staff live on property and you get the feel that they are welcoming you to their home when you arrive. You can feel their pride in the resort and the experience it provides.
From the moment I step off the seaplane, I’m greeted by name by all talent I encounter – even the ones I’ve never been introduced to.
I later realize that when we arrived at the seaplane lounge in Malé, they snapped our photo in front of the signature W outside the terminal.
A sneaky, yet genius way for talent to recognize guests? Perhaps.
The mark of a hotel that goes the extra mile to make guests feel welcome? Absolutely.
The W Retreat Maldives exceeded my every expectation. The Whatever, Whenever mantra quickly permeates your mindset while on the island. You truly begin to feel like there’s nothing you can’t have whenever you want it.
The only down-side to this extreme pampering?
Eventually, you have to return to the real world where you are expected to wear shoes and free ice cream isn’t waiting for you around every corner.
Real-life can be so cruel.
The Sheraton Maldives
But alas, we’ve been granted a reprieve…we have one more night of luxury remaining in the Maldives. This time at the Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort & Spa.
After our remarkable experience at the W, I’ve tempered my expectations of the Sheraton.
After a seamless transfer from seaplane to speedboat (the Sheraton is closer to the airport and doesn’t require a seaplane transfer), we step off the boat to an enthusiastic greeting by the General Manager, Ursula Schoefl and Marketing Communications Manager, Shumaes Resheed.
Shumaes has been answering Maldives-related questions for me on Twitter for weeks yet I had no idea he worked for the hotel until a few days ago.
Once again we’re whisked away on a golf cart, given a brief tour of the island and then driven straight to our villa to settle in.
Now, after two nights at the extraordinary W Maldives, I have to admit I don’t have high expectations for our room at the Sheraton. I mean, sure, it’ll be nice (they always are) but I don’t expect to be wowed.
My apologies to the Sheraton Maldives for underestimating them, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Sheraton Maldives Villas
Recently, the Sheraton added 20 new luxury villas and I’m fortunate enough to score the upgrade thanks to my frequent guest status.
The villa’s design is elegant and contemporary with clean lines and calming colors. It’s similar in size to the W retreat and more importantly, it has a truly outstanding terrace outfitted with private infinity pool, lounge chairs, hammock and the tranquil sound of crashing waves.
Once again, the first word that comes to mind is, WOW.
After unpacking, we grab some lunch and spend a little time exploring the island. We wander out to the boardwalks leading to the overwater bungalows – yes, the Sheraton Maldives has those, too!
With the island tour complete, we realize there’s no better place than our own terrace to lounge the afternoon away.
The Sheraton’s Shark Feeding
That evening, we join Ursula and Shumaes at the Anchorage Bar for sunset cocktails and to watch the nightly shark feeding.
As the sun sets in the distance, dozens of baby black-tip sharks and several rays begin to swarm near the bar. They are clearly pros at the free food thing.
A hotel staffer tosses food to the sharks and it’s fascinating to watch them all dart around in search of a handout. Honestly, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. (Note to self: Sunset is not a good time for a swim near the bar.)
After sunset, Ursula and Shumaes join us for dinner at the hotel’s signature restaurant Sea Salt. Again, I’m sure nothing could top the exquisite meal we had last night at the W and again the Sheraton proves that I underestimated them.
The chef has created a special tasting menu and every course is more divine than the last. All in all, a terrific meal with equally terrific company.
The next day, it’s finally time to depart this beautiful island nation.
I’ve dreamed of visiting the Maldives for many years and I’m so thrilled to be able to say, with certainty, they are just as magnificent as the dreamy photos would have you believe.
Quite literally, heaven on sand.
This may have been my first visit to the Maldives, but you can bet an ice cream from the Sweet Spot that it won’t be my last.
Next stop, Sri Lanka!