Choosing where to go in the Maldives is a big decision. There are 1200 or so islands, within 26 atolls, spanning an area the size of Portugal. So where, exactly, should you include in your dream itinerary?
Fly-and-flop newlyweds looking for desert-island seclusion can’t really go wrong: pick your budget, find your paradise. But there’s plenty more to this special slice of the Indian Ocean, attracting the gamut of travelers from backpackers to big families. Nature lovers and activity bods can have their cake and eat it with some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world, while surfer’s flock to certain atolls for a special sort of swell. These are the best places to visit in the Maldives.
Best for manta rays sightings
This Unesco protected biosphere reserve is home to the largest gathering of manta rays found anywhere in the world. Head for Hanifaru Bay in June to November when the zooplankton they feed on is at its most bounteous.
If yours is a big-budget trip then the place to stay is the atoll’s newest resort, Seaside Finolhu Sandbank. Built around four dainty islets, the resort is home to 1.25 miles (2km) of pristine beaches and a show-stopping 1.1-mile (1.8km) sandbank – the longest of any Maldivian resort.
Best for historic architecture
Instead of passing through capital Malé to your paradise island, spend a day taking in this micro city’s historic spots. Start with Mulee’aage Palace, the official residence of the President of the Maldives and a dazzling example of dak bungalow architecture.
Then it’s onto the Old Friday Mosque. Built in 1656, this coral-stone beauty is the oldest in the Maldives. Officially, it’s a no-go for non-Muslims, but if you’re modestly dressed and visit outside of prayer time, you’re likely to be welcomed in. It’s worth it, just to see the fine lacquer work and elaborate wood carvings.
North Malé Atoll (and Huvadhoo Atoll too)
Best for surfing
From March to November the Maldives’ best-loved swells rise up from the outer reefs of the North Malé Atoll. Thulusdhoo is the island to stay at, where reasonably priced guest houses host a friendly surfing crowd. Or there’s upmarket Cokes Surf Camp, whose break is where intermediate and advanced surfers catch their biggest waves.
Those in the know have started to swerve this well-established spot in favor of the waves on the southern rim of the Huvadhoo Atoll. A large concentration of breaks in a short distance means the best way to surf this region is by boat charter. Looking for a luxury stay while you’re there? Ayada Maldives is perfectly placed.
South Ari Atoll
Best for whale-shark spotting
Biggest fish in the sea? The whale shark. The best place to see them in the Maldives – if not the world – is the South Ari Atoll, where these majestic giants dwell year round. You’ll see the greatest number of them in the channel to the south of the atoll from May through to December.
As an alternative to the better-known and more costly resort islands in the atoll, Omandhoo is a quiet island that has only recently started welcoming tourists. When you’re done with the whale sharks, there are barracuda and turtles to spot on snorkeling adventures in its surrounding reef.
Best for diving
You don’t hear much about this part of the Maldives, which is surprising considering how good the diving is. Kuredu – the best established diving resort in the area at the northern tip of the atoll – is known for its shipyard site, with two wrecks to explore. There’s a good chance of seeing manta rays here from May to November.
If being the only dive boat in view is a priority, head south to Komandoo. The waters around this luxury resort are so unexplored, enthusiasts are regularly finding new dive sites, with fifteen species of shark found so far.
Best for nature parks
The southernmost of the Maldives’ atolls, heart-shaped Addu has its own distinct character (and dialect) with a range of activities and sightseeing spots you won’t find elsewhere. Start with a guided tour of Addu Nature Park or canoe in the Bedhi bay area to wend through red mangroves teeming with stingrays and sharks.
Addu City is a place to experience proper island life, where you’ll hear the daily call to prayer as local fishers return with their catch. On the island of Gan, pay your respects at the British War Memorial before signing up for a thrilling descent with the nearby skydiving school.
Best for budget accommodations
Noisy, colorful, cosmopolitan – Maafushi is the best place to experience the Maldives on a budget. Backpackers looking for a lively atmosphere will find it on Bikini Beach, with booze boats and floating bars just off shore if you insist on a drink (note: alcohol is prohibited on all public islands).
Maafushi may not be the most attractive corner of the Maldives – its four beaches get busy and there’s near constant building works at the moment – but it’s a lot of fun and a good spot for snorkeling day-trips and other water sport excursions.
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