The Maldives: 35,000 Square Miles of Islands
By Tab Hauser
The Maldives is a true tropical paradise. This island nation is located in the Indian Ocean 620 miles southwest off the tip of India. Its 1192 coral islands are scattered over 35,000 square miles making the Maldives one of most dispersed countries. Of these islands, 200 are lived on and 97 are set up as resorts.
Because the Maldives are spread out over the many atoll regions it is hard to really know what the country looks like staying in one.
A Resort and Ship Stay
To get to understand the lay of the land, or in this case, the sea, we did the Maldives two ways. One way was at a resort island for a week and the other aboard a 56 passenger ship for two weeks.
Most visitors to the Maldives find a resort island to relax for a week. Our choice was the JA Manafaru.
We chose it because of its size, the amount of villas and its location far to the north. We also enjoyed the 75-minute seaplane ride that was included in the promotional rate during our stay.
From the air, we saw the coral reefs, small islands, and atolls. For the “seaplane adverse”, there are closer island resorts that run a boat from the international airport dock to their place. But if you don’t like small planes or boats, the Maldives is not for you.
The JA Manafaru Resort in the Maldives
The accommodations here are plush as one would expect for a resort of this class and price, which was $1100 per night.
Our over the water villa had a spacious bedroom with a large seating area and glass section of the floor to view the sea.
The bathroom was large with a long two-person whirlpool tub in the middle. The back deck, that was completely private, had lounge chairs, a small infinity pool and ladder down to the water.
We recommend the less expensive sunrise view because you are protected from the strong afternoon sun.
The villas came with the island produced good-tasting purified water in reusable bottles. Trying to be more green, I took our water to the dining room and was told I had to spend $10 for French or Italian water that was a waste of trash and money.
Manafaru Island at only 24 acres never felt crowded. More than half its villas are over the water. There are another 36 villas scattered around the island.
All villas come with a private pool. There are seven restaurants, a spa, gym and bicycles that come with each villa. The island has one swimming pool in the center surrounded by trees as well as an infinity pool built into the beach that we preferred.
It takes 45-minutes to walk around the island which is heavily vegetated between the buildings giving an almost jungle feel.
Things to Do on Manafaru Island
Manafaru Island is surrounded by a soft sand beach and an outer reef. There is a long pier with easy access for snorkeling to the “house reef”. While there were many fish on the reef, it was moderately bleached.
Resort activities offered included a castaway island experience, a visit to a village island, dolphin cruising as well as diving which the Maldives is famous for. These excursions were expensive. A nearby two-hour snorkel excursion was $90 per person.
Two Meal Plan at the Villa
The preferred activity for guests was to relax in their private pool, beach or by the infinity pool next to the bar. We were on the two meal plan and found the food very good.
Breakfast had lots of choices complete with various tropical fruits brought to your table upon request.
JA Manafaru’s international buffet evening had different stations cooking fresh ingredients in front of you that were delicious. A highlight was a wonderful wine paired dinner in their wine cellar complete with a bag of hot rocks to keep your feet warm.
A “must-do” is their floating breakfast. Think breakfast in bed but with a floating tray in your pool. Staying on a resort island is a luxurious way to unwind and forget the winter blues. (The JA Manafaru is wheelchair accessible but there can be issues getting on and off the seaplane.)
The Maldives by Sea
While vacationing on an island is a great way to just chill, you are limited to one region along with the creatures that live there.
To see the Maldives better, the second part of our visit had us board the 56-passenger Yasawa Princess. Our cruise covered 200 miles over four regions in a clockwise loop.
Visiting the Islands
We chose this ship because it visits nearly a dozen islands and sand spits as well as offers a chance to dive up to twice a day.
This works well if one travel partner dives, as the other can beach or snorkel until their partner catches up with them.
Snorkelers have one to two opportunities daily to see the fish. While snorkeling is included, diving incurs an extra but reasonable charge.
The ship’s usual routine would be to pull up to a picture-perfect coral protected sandy spit, maybe 300 to 500 feet long.
Here the staff would put out umbrellas and a cooler of beer, soda, and water. Guests would be shuttled to the beach for a few hours of snorkeling, floating in the warm waters and snoozing on a blanket. For lunch, everyone would ferry back to the ship and either be taken back to the island or set off for an afternoon to snorkel elsewhere.
Twice during the week, sunset fishing was offered using local methods of hand spooling a line. There was also a Maldivian cooking course during the cruise.
This pleasant routine was changed up with a visit to the resort island of Rannahli for the day for the beach or a massage.
Just off the island both snorkelers and divers were taken out in the dive boat to swim with dozens of nurse sharks and stingrays.
Another afternoon we visited a small village island to pick up a few souvenirs and see what life looked like there.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
During our second week, we cruised in the dive boat looking for whale sharks. When one was spotted everyone aboard grabbed their snorkel gear and jumped overboard as fast as possible.
Swimming with these giant fish was truly a bucket list experience. That night we anchored with the ships underwater stern lights on and a small 20-foot whale shark came up to feed on the plankton. Both passengers and crew were screaming in joy.
Night and Day with the Manta Rays
Another highlight for both snorkelers and divers were the day and night time manta ray encounters.
Here we saw these majestic creatures, many with over 12-foot wingspans “flying” through the water looping around each other.
They had their mouths wide open collecting food as they came within inches of the divers on the bottom and were just a few feet below the snorkelers on top.
The same scene was repeated a night later. This time we jumped into the dark having limited visibility supplied by small flashlights along with two surface lights and two lights submerged at 40 feet.
It was quite a sight to see the mantas just appear out of the darkness.
The Yasawa Princess is an older three-star ship cruising in a five-star destination. The cabins and bathrooms are small and basic with air conditioning that is “adequate” on the top deck.
All meals on board are buffet, simple and very good. Lunch and dinners had choices of “just caught” fish by the crew as well as chicken or beef.
On most days sashimi was served as a starter. A highlight is the weekly “no-shoes” beach BBQ on a deserted island complete with dancing in the sand and a billion stars overhead.
The ship’s layout is simple. The dining room connects to the bar and lounge area which opens to an outside stern view. It is not air-conditioned but does have large open windows and fans that allows a breeze to run through it as the boat always faces the wind.
The top deck has a shady area with lounge chairs. Service on board was excellent and we were pleased with the chef giving my wife personal attention to her food allergies.
What the Princess is NOT
If you need table service, an upscale bar, indoor air-conditioned lounges, room service and the need to dress for dinner, this might not be the cruise for you.
What the Yasawa Princess does well is get you to nature, remote beaches and reefs at a reasonable price. It shows you the best of the Maldives above and below the surface without fancy frills.
Of the 34 passengers on board, 30 were British and mostly retirees. A quarter of them were repeat guests with some coming back more than three times!
Cruises are one or two weeks. Guests opting for one week must meet or get off the ship at the half waypoint. (This ship is not wheelchair accessible)
Find out more about the Maldives.