In the Maldives, It’s Water, Water Everywhere

Bungalows in the Maldives, an oceanic destination for luxury tourists. Frank Lukasseck / Corbis

it is difficult, perhaps, to form an idea of a nation that consists of 26 atolls spread north-south across a vast expanse of ocean. The Maldives, moreover, have positioned themselves at the pinnacle of the luxury tourist market by subtracting from their national image any trace of social strife. The atolls are made of thousands of tiny islands, virtually any of which make a perfect spot for a world-weary resort.

The tourism of the Maldives is predicated upon this vast dissemination of tiny plots of land that seem to barely survive the enormity of the blue element and whose beauty makes them so desirable—and so profitable. Around them the coral reefs change the complexion of the water, creating a tapestry of turquoises and ceruleans. It seems like a world where humans should not exist. The perilous fragility of the coral, moreover, gives the scene a slightly chilling beauty. But after all, one is not here to ponder the fate of the earth and its global warming—one is here to go to a luxury resort. Are the two things unhypocritically compatible?

Naturally, the best resorts anticipate an environmental unease among their wealthy clients. The trend is toward marine conservation combined with “no footprint” escapism, an assuaging of anxiety through a promise of harmony. The newest of the Maldivian atoll resorts, meanwhile, is the lovely Niyama, located on the tiny far-flung fleck of land 40 minutes by seaplane south of the equally tiny capital, Malé. Niyama is owned by Per Aquum, a Maldivian company that is making its mark in this exalted sector by designing introspective resorts equipped to a high level. Many of its villas are built directly upon the water, a common Maldives practice, and inside mine I felt as if the brooding sea was the only thing left to savor. Around the steps that led down to the lagoon, the blacktip sharks gathered as if aware that I was there, their skin a delicate pale lemon-green.

The modern eco-resort can often have a whiff of the British 1960s TV series The Prisoner, in which actor Patrick McGoohan stumbles around a fake English village that provides so many amenities, its inhabitants no longer realize they are not part of the real world. But Niyama gets around this problem by arranging its spaces well and keeping its buildings both small and submerged within glades of palms. Most of the time I felt uncannily alone, wandering along its beaches, where stingrays came right up to the sand as if to ogle me, or watching incoming monsoon storms from the uninhabited islands that lie around the atoll and which one can reach from a boat armed with a pair of flippers and a snorkel. It is the child’s yearning to be alone in a coral garden, on an island where Friday has not yet arrived.

Niyama, though, has also built a superb ocean-island restaurant, called Edge, out at sea—diners get there in a speedboat—and a submarine nightclub called Subsix, which seem to have been lifted from an early James Bond movie. The DJs are flown in from Los Angeles and London, and the fish peer in at them through observation windows with a kind of piscine astonishment. One therefore seems to be not only living in the ocean, but dancing in it as well.