The Maldives, a paradise of islands in the Indian Ocean, worries that rising sea levels will put the country underwater within a century. But prices are already sinking at the luxury resorts nestled on private islands, powdery white beaches, and clear blue waters. The global economic downturn, and the resulting decline in global travel, has led hotels to offer special deals in a place once seen as too high-end and hard to reach for mass tourism.
Getting there is the hard part. You can fly to the Maldives from most US cities with one connection; airfares start at $1800 from Chicago, connecting through Sri Lanka. Like any beach vacation stateside or in the Caribbean, the Maldives' central offer is sun, sand, and surf, with world-renown scuba diving. So why's it worth going so far away?
"Because there's nothing else there...it allows you to really unwind," says Adrian Neville, an expert with sevenholidays.com and author of Resorts of the Maldives, which profiles secluded hotels offering deluxe pampering in extreme serenity.
"We've forgotten how to do nothing. The Maldives gives that back to you."
There are plenty of Western chain hotels and resorts in the Maldives. The Sheraton Full Moon Resort with off-season rates starting at $265 per night, and 25% off if you book 30 days in advance (with some restrictions during the week before and after New Year's Eve). The Sheraton has family-friendly features like a children's pool and dolphin cruises for an additional fee. At the high-end there are two Four Seasons resorts, with rooms fashioned in luxury thatched-roof style, and a new W Hotel on North Ari Atoll brings an urban, modern feel to nature's paradise. The W offers a James Bond Package – water sports, a private speedboat hire, kite surf lessons, night snorkeling, and martinis – for $1,055 during the peak season, $660 from September to October. There's also a discount on the honeymoon package, down to $585, if you book in the fall.
But Neville says the best resorts are the ones you've never heard of. For some of the best values in the Maldives, the Thudufushi and Arthuruga Island Resort offer all-inclusive 5 night packages for 2 people, starting at $3,780. Both are built by the Italian Planhotel chain, and set on some of the best beaches with ample lagoons for snorkelling. The Kandooma Resort, less well-endowed but still with gorgeous grounds, has slashed rates and offered a fifth night free, with garden villas starting at $207 per night (they're normally priced at $360).
Luxurious Resorts that Won't Break the Bank
At the high-end, the Soneva Gili and Soneva Fushi , both part of the Six Senses chain of resorts, take Robinson Crusoe living to a five-star scale. They offer the iconic Maldivian water villas, luxury suites perched on wooden platforms above turquoise ocean that are often large enough to accommodate a family of four. If you can stand the hotter weather, the best rates turn up from March to October – an off-season that includes the monsoon rains of late summer. During the slow months villa suites start at $1,050 per night, down from $1,920 at peak.
The Soneva Resorts win points for ecological responsibility. The chain shuts off electricity for one day each month, timed with the full moon, when the hotel restaurants serve by candlelight. The in-house compost heaps and organic gardens mix with educational offerings, like an in-house marine biologist and an astronomy lab with expert star-gazers to guide the guests (great for the Maldives' densely starry nights). The Banyan Tree hotel on Vabbinfaru also offers guests a Marine Center and a lagoon with abundant Green Sea Turtles. The winner of Tripadvisor's Traveler's Choice Award for 2009, the all-inclusive Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru starts at $1,005 per night, and drops to $875 during the off season. Its sister property, the Banyan Tree on Madivaru, offers a 10% discount for booking a month in advance; both give you a free 90-minute massage with a stay of three days or longer.
If you're inclined to leave the turf for surf, the Maldives offers a numbers of "liveaboards," small luxury boats that take you on an island-hopping safari. The ships come in varying sizes and luxury grades, and make for the best in snorkelling and scuba diving excursions. On-board cooks mix local and international cuisine, and some boats have bars and sound systems that make for a party on the water. A number of websites, like www.maldivesliveaboards.com, showcase different boats and feature cheap last-minute deals.
The government of the Maldives, which relies on tourism to underpin a third of the economy, is taking steps to make the country more accommodating. The nearly 100% Sunni Muslim country has moved to allow marriages of all faiths, to encourage destination wedding. But if there's one reason to visit the Maldives it's that the whole country may be a limited-time offer.