- 1 / 9Drift Away on a DhoniA vacation in the Maldives will most likely require setting foot on a boat—it's a nation of islands, after all. Adventurous travelers might swap the ultra-luxurious yachts for a jaunt in a small dhoni, a traditional Maldivian watercraft that's been used by fishermen for centuries. These days, most are equipped with motors and the capacity to carry up to a dozen seafarers eager for sunset sails or dolphin-watching cruises. Dhonis are such a fixture of the Maldives that Como Cocoa Island designed its overwater suites to resemble the beautiful boats, and the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa modeled its lobby after them.
- 2 / 9Underwater IngenuityConstruction is tough on low-lying islands, so Maldivian engineers have gotten creative by building underwater instead. Resorts have capitalized on this architectural ingenuity, commissioning everything from underwater hotel rooms to belowdecks bars. Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi boasts an underwater spa as well as an underwater wine cellar that holds 6,000 different wines. Guests looking for aquatic good times can head to the W Retreat & Spa’s 15 Below, a world-class nightclub where it's possible to sip a cocktail while watching fish swim by. The resort Per Aquum Niyama is home to Subsix, a restaurant and club that's 500 meters offshore and can only be accessed by boat, while diners at Ithaa Undersea Restaurant enjoy European fare served five meters down from the water's surface.
- 3 / 9Dancing to Bodu BeruTourists will have to step off the resort for a full immersion in Maldivian culture. But one night a week, most hotels feature a traditional performance called bodu beru. The Dhihevi words for "big drums," bodu beru involves about a dozen sarong-clad men singing and swaying to the beat of drums under the moonlight. Dances begin slowly and quietly, with only one musician keeping time, and grow to a frenetic pace. The troupe—whose number usually includes members of the resort staff—sings tunes with universal themes of love and loss; and at some resorts, you can even take a bodu beru class.
- 4 / 9Island-Hopping Like a Local
Cruising picture-perfect islands on a private yacht is a standard way to see the Maldives, but setting aside the luxury bubble and visiting the Maldives' inhabited areas is often a trip highlight that surpasses even the most sumptuous resort experience. Most resorts can arrange excursions to a handful of the popular islands; there's also a public ferry service linking Male to Mahibadhoo and Maafushi. (Both have guesthouses, so travelers can stay overnight.) Visitors here are typically advised to abide by conservative Maldivian dress codes: Leave the bikini behind and opt for a shirt with sleeves and shorts that cover the knees.
- 5 / 9Distinctly Tropical FlavorsThe talented chefs at top resorts serve up food with distinctly tropical tastes, such as sizzling tandoori tiger prawns with mango and coconut. They use spices from India or Sri Lanka, and draw inspiration from Thailand's sweet curries. It helps that the restaurants have access to incredibly fresh seafood, which is integrated into nearly every meal. Travelers staying at the Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru resort can work alongside masters during a culinary demonstration—the chef prepares local favorites like reef fish or tuna curry and the guests get instruction on how to create delicious marinades.
- 6 / 9Game FishingThere aren’t many places on Earth where amateur anglers can throw a rod into the water and pull out an enormous grouper or red snapper. But that’s why big-game fishing is a popular pastime in the Maldives. Resorts like the W Retreat & Spa offer half- or full-day trips during which tourists can kick back on deck and try their luck at reeling in a big one. At Como Cocoa Island, guests can stay closer to their comfort zones by heading out for just a few hours at sunset for bottom-fishing. And as if there wasn’t already enough incentive to make a memorable catch, many resort chefs will also cook up your prize and serve it for dinner.
- 7 / 9The Markets of MaleThe markets of Male, the capital of the Maldives, are a window into life beyond the overwater bungalows. The most popular is the pungent fish market, the first stop for fisherfolk after they’ve returned to dry land. While the structure that houses the market is rather small, it’s packed with just-caught seafood arranged in rows for chefs to examine. The best time to visit is in the afternoon, when the fish cutters put their sharp knives to work—although visitors should watch their step and be warned that the smell can be rather overpowering. Luckily, fresh air is just a block away at the colorful local produce market. Here, Maldivian families stock up on bananas, papayas, and yams from the surrounding islands.
- 8 / 9Male's MosquesVisitors to the Maldives may well expect breathtaking ocean views and beaches, but they are often surprised by the external splendor of Male's mosques. Among the most impressive is the Islamic Centre’s Grand Friday Mosque, which can hold about 5,000 worshippers. Here, a sweeping white staircase beckons the faithful into a building topped with a gleaming gold dome. Its predecessor, the Hukuru Miskiy (Friday Mosque), served as Male's main place of prayer before the newer mosque was built, and is a humble structure of coral walls and sturdy beams adorned with Arabic script.
- 9 / 9Dive beneath the SurfaceThe Indian Ocean is the heart of your vacation in the Maldives. To get below the surface without getting wet, step into a submarine. Boat sizes vary, but most can descend about 120 feet for unobstructed views of reefs and fish. From a comfortable seat, you can take photographs without needing to fiddle with an underwater camera. And unlike with diving, the submarine's normal interior atmospheric pressure means that it’s safe to emerge and fly immediately afterward. Whale Submarine Maldives offers 45-minute tours in a vessel that holds 50 passengers.