Cruise in the Maldives

Those who get itchy feet even in paradise can find freedom by taking a cruise around the islands. Shane Watson leaves the plunge pool behind and takes to the turquoise seas...

The Maldives. No two words sum up the luxury travel experience quite so effectively. Tell people you are 'off to the Maldives' and they picture an exquisite island paradise: white sand, psychedelic fish, rooms on stilts and private plunge pools. Even if you've never been there you know that 'Maldives' is shorthand for unsurpassed escapist luxury: a perfect climate; a millpond sea that's never less than 25ºC; state-of-the-art spas (open to the sea, naturally); a choice of five-star restaurants. And if you have been there - as I have a couple of times - you will know that it is a combination of the Robinson Crusoe paradise of childhood dreams and a honeymoon destination fit for the Hollywood A-list with sand-floor cocktail bars, outdoor showers and sandbar-dining by candlelight. There's no dirt, no noise, no crowds or impoverished locals staring over the fence, and nothing is ever less than immaculately presented, because the Maldives has been designed from the sand up to provide a flawless environment for people who can afford perfection. This archipelago of coral islands in the Indian Ocean stretches for 1,000km and includes 100 (and counting) self-contained island resorts, but you can go anywhere in the region and have this experience, give or take degrees of excellence. And that, ladies and gentleman, is where paradise has its limitations.

We are peculiar, we modern travellers. We want to lie very still on a double sunbed for days, get fed iced watermelon slices, swim a bit, snorkel some, get massaged a lot, work our way through the cocktail list - but then we start to get… restless. It's not that we're bored (if we were bored we could learn to dive), it's more that we're conscious of having travelled a long way (at least 10 hours' flight from the UK) to gaze out at the same view day after day. I am the laziest, most pampering-friendly woman in the world after Elizabeth Taylor (we can't be sure she was lazy, but she always looked like she preferred the good things in life to come to her), and yet after three days of living the resort experience I feel the need to explore. Nothing strenuous; just a change of scene.

It all starts with the journey by seaplane from Malé airport to your designated patch of paradise. From above the islands look like a series of fantastic ink blots - turquoise bordered with aquamarine, milky jade bleeding into pistachio - floating in royal blue. This journey is perhaps the only time you'll find world-weary, travel-whipped adults smiling blearily, grinning shyly at each other, dazed by the tie-dye world unfolding beneath them.

You land so softly you barely notice and are whisked by speedboat the three-minute journey to land where you're met with a chilled drink and buggied along white-sand pathways to your beach bungalow. Once you've investigated - the outdoor shower! the private pool! the double daybed on the beach! - you stare out at the horizon and realise that this is it for the duration of your stay. Fantastic, no question. But wouldn't it be something if you could stay in a resort and disappear into that view as well? There are some 1,000 still-uninhabited islands in the Maldives, and it's this sense of a boundless blue wonderworld, waiting to be explored, that makes it seem criminal to come all this way only to stay put on a square mile of sand.

Because the Maldives is wish-fulfilment Mecca, there is, of course, a brilliant solution. The Four Seasons has hit on a way of giving guests a taste of what lies beyond the white umbrellas in the form of a mini cruise on a 12-berth boat that travels between its two resorts on a 480km circuit. From a distance the Four Seasons Explorer looks like a smaller version of Roman Abramovich's super-yacht - sleek, white and pointy, with strips of smoked-glass windows - but once on board it feels more like a small, well-appointed ferry. That's not a criticism - I fell in love with this boat - but were you expecting an Armani-style designer yacht with lots of gleaming chrome, mahogany, striped awnings and model-like staff, you might be disappointed. The Explorer is a solid, no-frills kind of boat, more Elizabeth II than Carla Bruni. The rooms are, on the whole, compact and cosy (though not so cosy they can't accommodate a two-metre-wide bed); the 'treatment' area is a curtained-off corner of the upper deck; you don't get scattered rose petals with your turn-down, or your own Jacuzzi, and there is no plunge pool, either. But don't panic. This, intentionally or not, is all part of the boat's charm. Four Seasons has not tried to make a floating five-star resort; what it has created is an escape from the resort formula, where you are as free as if you owned the boat yourself.

When you board the Explorer the first thing you do is remove your shoes and put them on a bench where they remain - symbols of your uptight, landlocked self - throughout the four-day trip (you can spend as long as you like on board, but four days seemed about right, especially if you want a couple of nights at each resort). Being barefoot alongside the cheerful crew (one per guest) in their khaki shorts and white polo shirts also subtly alters the atmosphere. The message is that you are here to feel as free and relaxed as you would if this were a private charter: no need for competitive dressing for dinner; no need to rush to the watersports centre to sign up for a dive (just say the word and they'll take you out three times a day if you want). Best of all (if you're my husband), no need to worry about the prices on the à la carte menu: it's all-inclusive.

There is an itinerary. Without one you might just sit on the prow gawping at the flying fish all day. But the activities are there for you to take up, ignore or adapt at your leisure.

We requested an unscheduled snorkelling trip the evening we arrived, and were whisked out on a tender with one of the Explorer's best assets: Harry the marine biologist. It is one thing snorkelling on a secluded reef in the middle of nowhere as the sun sets; it's an even bigger thrill to be escorted by a marine expert with a touching eagerness to share his passion.

That first evening we saw a stingray as big as a sorcerer's cape, parrot-fish the size of dinner plates and a curtain of bright-blue triggerfish dancing in the needles of fading light - and Harry was effusively apologetic. This was nothing, apparently. One of the advantages of these waters is the fantastic visibility: in daylight you can see clear down to 10 metres and snorkellers can spot pretty much everything a diver would. Harry promised the following day would bring turtles, maybe reef sharks and manta rays (never anything scary; the Maldives don't bite). Eight bobbing heads in masks grinned delightedly. We were the only people as far as the eye could see, and the only sound was the distant clink of ice cube on cocktail shaker.

Days on the boat began, typically, with a blissed-out breakfast on deck, an early morning dive, a snorkel and then lunch: sometimes a picnic on a deserted stretch of white sand, set up with individual umbrellas and rush mats; sometimes grilled snapper onboard. Then the boat would move on, setting course for the feeding grounds of manta rays or favourite channels of whale sharks. There was time to read and to swim. Time to play football (on a spit of sand, the crew versus the fitter male guests). Time to waterski or wakeboard whenever it took your fancy. If you wanted to fit in an extra dive, visit a village school or get a massage under the palm trees, or if you just happened to spot a particularly picturesque stretch of reef crying out to be explored, all of it was possible. This is why Abramovich and Armani choose to holiday on yachts: yes, they want to strip off away from the long lenses and keep their distance from the merely rich. But they also know that true luxury is freedom to change the view as often as you please.

It's also about being treated like a movie star. On an evening line-fishing trip someone said 'Let's celebrate!' and a tender was instantly dispatched to fetch chilled Moët & Chandon, an ice bucket and eight glasses to toast the catch of a baby shark (thrown back, naturally). At night we became stars of our own film show, gathering to watch videos taken by our wetsuited cameraman replaying in glorious close-up the barracuda's teeth, the turtle's sad, dreamy eyes, the 10-feet-deep shoals of snapper and the manta rays like eerie, silver-mouthed spacecraft. (At the start of the trip the underwater home movies had seemed like a naff idea, an intrusion; by the end of it we happily took our seats to toast another spectacular day).

It is worth mentioning that if this boat were full to capacity (there were just eight guests, and it sleeps 22) it would have felt much too crowded. Also, if you dread the thought of rubbing shoulders with strangers on holiday then perhaps theExploreris not for you. As it was, when the time came to disembark and say goodbye to the crew and our fellow travellers, I had to try quite hard not to cry.

Ideally you would spend a few days at the beginning of the trip in the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa(pictured), a mere 30 minutes by boat from the airport (a significant detail if you've just made the 10-hour-plus journey from London) and finish the trip at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru (known as LG). We started at Kuda Huraa (KH), the smaller, older, less glitzy resort.

In keeping with the classic Maldivian formula, the property consists of water bungalows built out over the ocean on long piers, and beach bungalows cleverly landscaped with shrubbery to provide privacy, and a window onto your own semi-private stretch of beach. The rooms here are as romantic as they come: thatched on top, glossy dark wood inside, with a giant soapstone bath and outdoor shower. We were never once disturbed by screaming toddlers - always a fear. They're out there somewhere - the resort is child-friendly - but families tend to congregate around the main pool and live on the sunrise side of the island (where the rooms are slightly cheaper), allowing the other half of the guests to play honeymoons to their hearts' content. A romantic highlight (even if you've just got off a boat) is the hotel's eveningdhonicruise. We watched while a pod of more than 100 spinner dolphins pirouetted at the prow of the boat, a sight that even had the seasoned crew chuckling. Dolphins are the big draw at KH, but there is another, more surprising attraction. In spite of the Maldives' millpond reputation, the surf gets up from April to October here, and it becomes a competitive surfing spot where tournaments are held (you can also take a Tropicsurf Safari on the Four Seasons Explorer). Something for everyone, then.

Still, just in case, there is LG, the newer, flashier, sexier big-sister property, referred to in hushed, reverential tones by Four Seasons staff. LG is the resort you would dream up if you were an advertising executive with good taste and an unlimited budget. At the heart of this 44-acre island is Blu (don't be put off by the missing 'e'), a Mediterranean-style restaurant with rattan awnings open to the sea and a view of a curling spit of ice-white sand, peppered with white and blue umbrellas. It's a scene that sums up the resort: breathtakingly, fashion-shoot beautiful, with guests to match; the South of France meets Miami, only without the crowds, or the pretension.

In 2006 Sir Philip Green - a man with large appetites and a sharp eye for the next big thing - filled
all 100 rooms for his birthday celebrations, flying in J.Lo, George Michael, Gladys Knight and all the Pips. Green had the whole Maldives to choose from but only LG ticked all his boxes: sophisticated and at the same time friendly and relaxed, big enough to spread out, and glamorous enough to suit Kate Moss. It's a winning combination.

Everything at LG is on a grander, more dramatic scale. The island itself has one of the largest natural lagoons in the Maldives, and a strip of jungle forms its spine. The resort has an epic Ayurvedic spa with over-water treatment rooms on stilts and a herb garden, an Olympic-sized pool and an aquatic centre (with its very own resident Jacques Cousteau fighting a rearguard action against the exploitation of manta rays).

Then there are the rooms. They range from first-class water villas the size of Manhattan penthouses, to more modest beach houses with plunge pools, and somewhere on the scale - incredibly, not at the very top - our beach villa, which included an outdoor dining and sitting area, a mezzanine sitting room (for the panoramic sea view), a 12-foot private pool and two double daybeds (one of which was on the beach). A family of four could live in these luxury villas and never come out, which is exactly what some of the more isolationist guests do, choosing to have all their meals brought to them in-house. This seems like an awful pity, given the dazzling situation of the restaurants - four in all, including a North African-inspired restaurant built over the water with a roof terrace.

You feel as though you are holidaying in a tiny principality where you might discover something new around any corner. It's quite an achievement - that, and the conviction that you are one of just 50 or so guests.

Clever Four Seasons. It has, so far as I can see, got it all covered: a warm resort, a cool resort and a boat that rocks.


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