A water-bound paradise offering beauty and the beach

I'M NOT SURE WHERE THEY ARE

The Republic of Maldives (independent from Britain since 1965) is a string of atolls over 500 miles long, running north to south through the Indian Ocean, some 300 miles south-west of the southern tip of India, and 450 miles from Sri Lanka's west coast. There are 26 atolls in total, made up of 1,190 coral islands, none of them more than three or four miles across or more than 10 feet above sea level. About 200 of the islands are inhabited by Maldivian nationals; 80 more are officially "uninhabited", but have been turned into island resorts catering for tourists.

WHAT IS AN ATOLL?

An atoll, or atolu in Dhivehi, the national language of the Maldives, is a ring of small, low-lying islands clustered round a central lagoon. Over many thousands of years, islands were created in the ocean from the peaks of the volcanoes which rose from the seabed. Coral grew around the shores, and continued to grow, even when the volcano became extinct, collapsed on itself, and sank back into the ocean. Coral and sand gradually built up to form low-lying islands around a lagoon where the crater of the volcano used to be, encircled by a coral reef which provides protection from the waves. Atolls act as a marine oasis for species that need a bit of land or shallow water in order to survive in the middle of the ocean.

AND THAT MAKES THEM A GOOD HOLIDAY DESTINATION?

It means clear, shallow waters for swimmers and easy access to coral reefs which are alive with dense shoals of brightly coloured tropical fish. As a result, the snorkelling and diving in the Maldives is among the best in the world. Snorkelling equipment can be hired from most resorts, or bought in the resort shops, although it may be cheaper to buy it at home and bring it with you. Although some resorts organise boat trips to the good snorkelling sites, others, like the Hilton Resort (00 960 4 50629; www.hilton.com) on the adjoining Rangalifinolhu and Rangali Islands in South Ari Atoll are close enough to the reef that you can swim out.

BUT WON'T I DAMAGE THE CORAL?

Walking on the reef and damaging the coral are prohibited, although coral is so sharp that it is almost impossible to walk on anyway. Protection of the environment is the main concern of the government and its president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has campaigned to raise international awareness of environmental issues. The environmental and social impact of tourism has been very tightly controlled, by restricting tourists to island resorts that are themselves carefully regulated. Buildings can only cover a small proportion of the designated island, and must blend into the surrounding vegetation. In addition, several birds and mammals have been put on a list of protected species, as have a number of marine sites. Visitors are expected to do their bit, too, by disposing of rubbish in a responsible manner and taking used batteries home with them, for example. Perhaps the most serious threat facing the Maldives is that of the rising sea level, which could eventually sink the country. Bad storms in 1987 and 1991 caused waves to hit the capital, Male (pronounced Mah-Lay), and flood the international airport.

SO WHERE CAN I STAY?

Most visitors book into one of the resorts, the majority of which are located on their own private island, with great water sports facilities and easy access to the beaches. It is possible to make a booking direct with the resort of your choice, and to arrange your own travel: there are direct flights from Heathrow to Male with Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.lk). But most people book through one of the major UK operators, such as Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) or Magic Connoisseurs (0870 166 0363; www.magic-connoisseurs.co.uk), who will arrange flights and transfers as well as accommodation, and can also combine a trip to the Maldives with another destination, such as Sri Lanka.

Accommodation varies from the deluxe to the simple (although in a destination like this, simple is a relative concept). The choice is between beach bungalow or villa on stilts, suite or residence, with additional features like a private jacuzzi or plunge pool. Elite Vacations (01707 371000; www.elite-vacations.co.uk) has a good range of accommodation. At the cheaper end of the scale is Bandos, a large, modern resort on North Male Atoll, where a seven-night, all-inclusive holiday starts at £1,086 per person. Alternatively, you could stay at Dhoni Mighili, in the Ari Atoll, west of Male, which has six beach bungalows, each with its own dhoni (all-purpose, all-weather boat) moored outside in case you fancy sleeping on the water, or taking a short cruise. The starting price for this is £3,273 per person for six nights' full board.

WON'T I GO MAD WITH BOREDOM?

The point of a holiday in the Maldives is that you get the chance to relax, pamper yourself and generally chill out, in comfortable surroundings against an exquisite natural backdrop. More than half the islands' visitors spend at least some of their time scuba diving - hardly surprising, given that the Maldives offer some of the best dive sites in the world. Most of the resorts include a dive centre and offer courses for beginners, as well as opportunities for more experienced divers. Sea Explorers (00 960 316172; www.sportextreme.com) is a diving school based in Male, which offers courses and diving trips at all levels.

A holiday in the Maldives is also a good opportunity for a spa break. Most of the resorts offer some kind of health club facilities, but for the full treatment, book in at a proper spa. Try Angsana Resort and Spa (00 960 443 502; www.angsanaspa.com) on Ihuru in North Male Atoll, where body scrub and massage treatments start at $85 (£47) for a two-hour session. Double beachfront villas start at $577 (£320) per person for full board; at peak times there is a minimum seven-night stay. The Veyoge spa at the One&Only Kanuhura Resort (00 960 230044; www.oneandonlyresorts.com) on Lhaviyani Atoll is the most stylish in the country, with state-of-the-art facilities and a vast menu of wraps, scrubs and therapies; a Maldivian massage with tropical oils costs $95 (£52). Villas start at $442 (£245) for two people staying on a bed and breakfast basis.

BUT I'D LIKE TO MEET SOME LOCALS

Since tourists tend to stay in the resorts and the locals live on the so-called "inhabited" islands elsewhere, this is not always easy, although a good way to combine the two is to stay at Equator Village (00 960 588019), a budget resort on Gan, in Addu Atoll in the far south of the country. The island was once a British naval base, and as a result has more infrastructure than most: there a few paths for hiking and cycling, and the island is connected to four inhabited islands where there are some charming Maldivian villages.

Cocooned on your luxury island, it is easy to forget that the Maldives is an Islamic country, and while bikinis and booze are allowed in the resorts, the inhabited islands, including Male, insist on a bit more decorum. This is not to say that you need to be completely covered up, but too much bare flesh is considered inappropriate. Even on the artificial beach in Male, men and women are expected to wear at least a T-shirt and knee-length shorts for swimming (some of the Maldivian women go into the water in burkas and long trousers).

The easiest way to meet the locals is to take a trip to the capital Male, a city of around 75,000 people (nearly a third of the country's population), which is easily accessible from any of the islands. Most of the resorts have boats which will deposit visitors on Marine Drive, close to the main square.

SO WHAT CAN I DO IN THE BIG CITY?

Male is about 2km long and 1km wide; if you want to walk right around the island it will take you about an hour. Despite its diminutive size, recent development has turned the capital into a mini-Manhattan - at least as far as the volume of traffic is concerned. You can find everything from a traditional, dock-side fish-market at the north of the town, just along from Jumhooree Maidan, the main square, to a cybercafe ( www.cybercafe.com.mv) on Chandanee Magu. You will pay Rf10 (50p) for 15 minutes online.

Business hours in Male vary wildly, and not only in accordance with prayer times. The middle of the day is usually quiet, but shops are often open quite late. Government offices hours are Sunday to Thursday; on Friday, most people go to the mosque. The oldest one in the country, and a particularly beautiful example, is the Hukuru Miski. It dates from 1656 and has a superb wooden panel carved in the 13th century to commemorate the introduction of Islam to the country. To be allowed inside, you have to ask permission from one of the staff. Be respectful and you are likely to be welcomed as a guest. Much more modern is the Grand Friday Mosque, whose golden dome is one of the landmarks of the town. Male and female visitors (properly covered up) are welcome between 9am and 5pm, although prayer times must be avoided.

The country is on a maritime trade-crossroads and has been influenced (sometimes forcibly) by everyone from Sri Lankan Buddhists to Arab and Portuguese traders. Relics of this varied history, going back 3,500 years, are on display at the National Museum on Medhuziyaarai Magu, which opens 8am-12pm and 3pm-6pm Sunday to Thursday, and 3pm-6pm on Friday. Entrance costs Rf25 (£1.15).

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

Straddling the equator, the Maldives has a tropical climate, with an average yearly temperature of about 28C. The best times to visit the islands are in November, when the weather is calm, or between late January and the end of May, when there is very little rain.

ISLAND-HOPPING

Island-hopping, in the way that you might do it in Greece, is not possible in the Maldives, as there are restrictions about landing on inhabited islands without a permit. But a good way to get around on the water is to take a safari. A day-long cruise charter could start at around $275 (£152) per person for up to four people on full-board basis, and includes an overnight stop; snorkelling equipment is also supplied. Seven-night surfing or diving trips can also be arranged, with prices starting at around $75 (£42) per day, depending on the time of year. Contact Voyages Maldives (00 960 323617; www.voyagesmaldives.com) or Panorama (00 960 327066; www.panorama-maldives.com).

WHALE WATCHING

For those interested in cetaceans, the Whale and Dolphin Company runs regular whale- and dolphin-watching trips around the atolls in November and from February to May. These are led by marine biologist Dr Charles Anderson. Accommodation is provided aboard an 85-foot catamaran, and the cost includes meals and transfers, although not the flights to the Maldives. There is still availability on a 10-night trip departing on 20 February 2005; this will cost £1,490 per person. Other trips are fully-booked, until the departure on 1 November next year. The Whale and Dolphin Company can be contacted at PO Box 2074, Male, Republic of Maldives (00 960 327024, or Anderson@dhivehinet.net.mv).

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