In a world where luxury and sustainability can at times appear to be at odds, one of the most beautiful places on our planet shines as a beacon of hope and harmony, embracing an ethos of responsible luxury. Cathy Wagstaff takes a first-hand look.
From eco-conscious architectural designs that minimise carbon footprints to collaborations with local artisans for authentic and sustainable experiences, the Maldives epitomises a new era of purposeful luxury travel. Picture stunning overwater villas perched above crystalline lagoons, where the gentle murmur of waves lulls one into a state of utter tranquillity, impeccable service, sumptuous culinary delights, and personalised experiences. The ecological splendour of the Maldives is accompanied by a sobering reminder of the fragility of this archipelago of 1,192 coral islands. Climate change poses a massive threat, with rising sea levels endangering the very existence of these islands. Realising the urgency of the situation, the Maldivian government, along with various private initiatives, has embarked on ambitious sustainability conservation efforts. Pioneering projects to protect coral reefs, foster marine sanctuaries, and adopt renewable energy sources underscore the nation’s unwavering dedication to preserving its natural heritage for generations to come. Here are the maldives resorts leading the charge to prove that tourism can be a force for good, and that protecting the environment doesn’t have to come at the expense of indulgence.
Gourmet goals: The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands
The Maldives has its fair share of ravishing resorts, not in the least the freshly minted The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands; its 100 villas sitting pretty in the North Malé Atoll. The late and legendary Australian architect Kerry Hill was called upon to oversee the design of the retreat, inspired by the swirl of the turquoise lagoon and the ocean breezes, embracing the circle of island life. The result? Interior and exterior design is pared-back, minimalist and visually lightweight, leaving little impact on the environment and always maximising views to the horizon and the connection with the elements.
The most striking feature lies in the resort’s extreme end, where a collection of overwater villas surround a halo-shaped spa, with both structure types designed to mimic the circular flow of ocean currents. The Ritz-Carlton is in the Fari Islands, a 45-minute boat ride from the international airport. Restaurants and bars are divided between three zones: Culinary Island, Grand Sunset Beach, and a satellite base at the Fari Marina Village, a 10-minute boat ride from the main Maldives resort. Standout experiences include Middle East and North Indian-themed Arabesque, sushi and teppanyaki at Iwau, and Eau Bar specifically for the melt-in-mouth seared wagyu beef nigiri. All of this Ritz-Carlton style doesn’t come at the expense of sustainability.
The resort’s Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program – in collaboration with the world-renowned oceanographic explorer, environmentalist, educator and film producer – offers hands-on, immersive experiences for all ages that explore the Maldives’ unique ecosystem. And then there’s the Olive Ridley Project, supporting the protection of vulnerable sea turtles and their habitats through rescue, rehabilitation, education and research. Ritzcarlton.com
At one with nature: Joali Being
Joali Being touts itself as a Maldives resort that will slow your heart rate, given its focus on health and wellness. But mine skips a beat when I land on the tiny private island – it is truly one of the most swoon-worthy destinations on the planet. Located on the island of Bodufushi in the Raa Atoll, Joali Being is the Maldives archipelago’s first retreat exclusively dedicated to wellness. But there’s no deprivation here – the goal is to meet you wherever you are on your own personal journey, then provide guidance on your path to self-discovery and renewal. It’s the sort of place that wants you to commit, but have a lovely time while doing it.
The resort’s programs are centred on four pillars: mind, skin, microbiome and energy. When I arrive, though, it’s the design that makes me feel lighter. The 68 villas, four restaurants and 39-room spa are built along biophilic principles – the science of connecting people, the natural world and built spaces. There are absolutely no corners – instead, there are curvy, temple-like thatched structures with soaring ceilings, sand floors and rooflines mimicking the waves beyond. Interiors are artisan driftwood finished with brushed-bronze caps, a restrained use of cane and coir, and a soothing pebble-grey, blush-pink and soft turquoise colour palette.
The main spa complex has many more distractions: glass-fronted saunas, steam rooms, ice fountains, hydrotherapy pools and a huge salt room with illuminated pink Himalayan salt bricks. There is also a vast Technogym, as well as the Maldives’ first cryotherapy chamber and a herbology bar for bespoke stress-reducing infusions – the tea bar has 72 different brews. With the planet also front of mind, Joali follows a ‘responsible luxury’ ethos that includes active reef regeneration and turtle conservation programs (green and hawksbill turtles nest on the island) to tree-planting initiatives, organic gardens, extensive waste management and energy-saving operations, as well as projects that support local communities and culture.
Serenity awaits: Joali Maldives
Wooden walkways curving over the lagoon; villas thatched with palm fronds; an inspired pavilion that looks like a manta ray from above; powdery sand, swaying palm trees and otherworldly blue – it’s a magical combination, and it’s my constant outlook when I check in to Joali Maldives. Owned and operated by Esin Gurul Argat, a Turkish woman who first visited the Maldives in 2000 and was instantly smitten, Joali’s beach and overwater bungalows are the kind of place you enter and never want to leave. Designed by Istanbul studio Autoban and Tokyo-based architects Studio Glitt, the resort unites Turkish and Maldivian flourishes throughout – think locally hand-carved wood panels and bamboo-slatted headboards, counterbalanced with rose-gold flourishes and windows that frame the ocean.
Like its newer sister, Joali Being, the original Joali Maldives resort has a strong connection to the environment and works tirelessly to protect it. Plastic is banned, waste management is a priority, there’s a farm-to-table ethos in restaurants, and suppliers are all local, to ensure that it minimises the resort’s carbon footprint. Also like its sister, Joali is working hard to protect the oceans, with on-site marine biologists dedicated to not only replenishing coral and conserving marine gardens but also educating guests on these underwater environments – and how they can be part of making a change.
Symphony in blue: Heritance Aarah
It’s hard to imagine a dreamier backdrop at a Maldives resort than Heritance Aarah, with its talcum- white sand, swaying palm trees and intensely blue water. The resort sits in the Raa Atoll, 40 minutes by seaplane from Malé, the Maldivian capital – the journey itself is a highlight, over atolls that resemble opals and sand cays that could be paintings. When I arrive, I’m swept into a dreamy cocoon of Robinson Crusoe-esque luxury, where open-air restaurants are tucked amid jungle or stilted over the water, and thatched-roof bungalows come decorated in cool tones that nod to the ocean.
Understandably, life here revolves around its natural bounty – the resort boasts a vast watersports centre where I can sign up to snorkel and dive, or opt for kite surfing, canoeing or waterskiing. Or perhaps a sunset cruise to watch dolphins skip the surf. A highlight is learning about the resort’s coral planting project, which to date, covers close to 100 square metres of the ocean’s floor. I also make the most of the exceptional restaurants and the spa, which includes traditional massage and beauty therapies as well as medical non-invasive procedures such as micro- and nano-needling, skin peels and non-surgical facelifts. There are nutritionists and trainers on site for wellness and fitness programs; there’s even a hangover clinic with IV drips, vitamin and mineral treatments.
The hotel has LEED Gold Certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – the most widely used green building rating system in the world), and every aspect of operations has been planned to create efficiency and minimise wastage. It’s a philosophy that also flows into design, with all buildings fitted with fuel-saving generators, energy efficient LED lighting and water-saving fixtures. How can you not sleep soundly when in this forward-thinking paradise?
Restorative bliss: Soneva Fushi
Sonu Shivdasani was ahead of his time when he launched the ‘barefoot luxury’ Soneva brand, focused on offering guests the kind of holiday that unites style and sustainability in equal measure. This means that while Soneva Fushi – one of two Soneva Maldives resorts – looks like a castaway fantasy island hewn entirely from driftwood, it’s also secretly souped up, with serious eco-credentials to boot. Indeed, checking in here is like stepping into a 3D version of The Blue Planet, but within the Baa Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Soneva brand was among the first in the world to abolish plastic straws, with Fushi banning them as far back as 1998, then halted water bottled in plastic in 2008. It doesn’t stop there.
This dreamy retreat recycles 90 per cent of waste on site through a robust management strategy; food scraps are composted to create soil for vegetable gardens and styrofoam packaging that arrives from imported food is transformed into lightweight blocks used in construction. Wine bottles are also upcycled at the Soneva Glass Studio and turned into art, and the Soneva Maker Programme remoulds excess plastic into products like flowerpots, bowls and children’s toys. The resort is carbon neutral and hopes to soon be 100 per cent waste-free, there’s significant investment in mangrove conservation and seagrass restoration. The newest addition to Fushi is the AquaTerra Centre, a hub for sustainability, science and exclusive guest experiences that offer the chance to be educated on the local ecosystem – visit and you have the chance to be involved in cutting-edge scientific research that the resort supports in collaboration with universities and visiting scientists.
The facility is the nerve centre for the Soneva Foundation Coral Restoration Programme, which launched in 2021; guests can combine a behind-the-scenes tour of AquaTerra with a guided snorkel at the house reef or tour around Soneva Fushi’s gardens and Eco Centro Waste to Wealth Centre. Later this year, the Soneva Foundation will also fund the installation of a micro- fragmenting laboratory, with 28 outdoor tanks that can produce up to 100,000 corals per year, as well as live streaming cameras with fish recognition software at the coral nursery, to combine with live data from a SmartBuoy.
Jungle escape: Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru
Landaa Giraavaru enjoys a ravishing location in the Baa Atoll UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Its 18 hectares of jungle spills to sandy shores and the island’s kilometre-long Blu Beach. Unsurprisingly, life here revolves around the water, whether you’re cruising in a private yacht, surfing or snorkelling with the world’s largest population of manta rays. You can also join marine biologists to help rehabilitate injured sea turtles, an initiative established as part of the resort’s extensive commitment to the environment. Choose your villa’s orientation (sunrise or sunset from the pool?), then wander to restaurants that range from Arabian to Asian, fine dining to finger food.
Indoor-outdoor connection: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island
Like many Maldives resorts, the Conrad takes luxe living to new heights, featuring overwater bungalows replete with glass floors and lavish spa pavilions on stilts. But it also gets deep thanks to its dazzling Ithaa Undersea Restaurant. Set five metres below the surface of the ocean, the dining room offers panoramic views over coral gardens, which means you can watch all manner of marine life drift past while enjoying fusion menus matched with fine wines. Talk to marine biologists about how they are regenerating and cleaning the reef, or venture to the spa for treatments like chakra balancing, Himalayan salt scrubs or Thai herbal healing.
Adventure abounds: Niyama Private Islands Resort
Whether you want to relax or are looking for an adventure, Niyama offers plenty of diversions. Aptly, the resort’s twin islands are known as Play and Chill. Across both Maldives resorts, you’ll find multiple pools (your villa also comes with its own), 10 restaurants and bars, a marine centre and a spa that makes the most of its lagoon setting. If you’re travelling in a group, choose The Crescent, a private pavilion with space for 14 adults and eight kids. There’s a strong commitment to keeping this atoll pristine, and guests are encouraged to meet with resident marine biologists and horticulturists to learn about the environment, whether on land or in the water where you can contribute to ongoing environmental initiatives.
Pure nature: Six Senses Laamu
The only resort on the Maldivian island of Olhuveli in the untouched Laamu Atoll, Six Senses Laamu takes the protection of its pristine environment seriously – including ensuring it’s passed down to future generations through ‘Sustainability Camp’, where teens can learn about zero waste, home grown and nature conservation. Sustainability practices extend to almost every aspect of the property; drinking water is produced on site, plastic is banned, and the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) is one of the largest resort-based marine biology teams in the region. Its research initiatives ensure the local marine life is protected, and fish responsibly caught, a vital project to protect marine life for generations to come.
Eco bliss: Gili Lankanfushi
The environment is front of mind across all aspects of this island: villas are crafted from responsibly sourced local materials like teak, palm wood, bamboo and palm fronds; organic toiletries are used in refillable bottles; and there’s a dedicated desalination plant to provide fresh water for visitors. Sign up for coral-cleaning adventures or collect underwater data to assist leading scientific organisations like Manta Trust. Choose the Private Reserve for unmatched opulence – think a private pool, spa pavilion, cinema and even a water slide to drop you into the sea. Your butler (aka Mr Friday) can organise meals in-suite, or wander to one of the many restaurants, which hero produce from the island and neighbouring communities.
Family friendly: Siyam World
Maintaining the marine ecosystem is also front of mind for Maldivian newcomer Siyam World. Its setting is Noonu Atoll, a part of the archipelago that reads like a David Attenborough documentary. Guests will find the highest density of swarming fish in the country, as well as a sizeable spinner dolphin population. The focus at this Maldives resort is on education, but with a fun twist. Siyam World aims to create environmental ambassadors out of kids as well as adults at this fully family-friendly Maldives resort. The idea is when you appreciate just how important the natural world is, you’ll grow up wanting to protect it.
Solar-powered paradise: Kudadoo Maldives Private Island Resort
Kudadoo Maldives Private Island is the first Maldives resort of its kind to be entirely powered by solar panels. Harnessing rays from the sun is also the goal of the government, which hopes to completely ditch polluting fuels in the near future. Kudadoo Maldives resort sources sustainable produce, including only line-caught local fish, and works with a number of NGOs to protect sea life: talk to the on-site marine biologist to discover how the resort is protecting sea turtle populations and partnering with the Manta Trust to research the archipelago’s population of these graceful creatures.
A sustainable future
If this effort from some of the leading resorts in the Maldives tells us anything, it’s that the world’s lowest-level country isn’t going to take climate change lying down. Better still, these Maldives resorts make it easy for guests to do their bit, at the same time as enjoying some of the most luxurious surroundings on the planet. The next time you’re trying to decide on a luxury island resort, make it one that’s leading the way for eco-tourism, striding ahead for sustainability and working towards a bright future for the Maldivian archipelago and beyond.
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