Bare feet thump on the deck as the captain cuts the engines and the Four Seasons Explorer, a sleek, three-deck catamaran, slows to a stop. Half of the ship’s 22 guests are peering over the port railing into the sapphire depths of the Indian Ocean. Dark forms, as large and angular as hang gliders, soar just beneath the waves.
“Manta rays!” shouts Abo, the ship’s dive master. “Grab your masks and snorkels.” As he leaps into the neon blue, the ocean bubbles like Champagne. When the fizz clears, the silhouettes of half a dozen mantas are revealed in the depthless seascape. Between May and November, when the plankton blooms in the Maldives, these large, beautiful rays appear by the scores, barrel-rolling like fighter jets just inches beneath the waves as they scoop up their microscopic meals.
The Explorer sails in the heart of the Maldives, a strand of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean. Only 200 are inhabited—Robinson Crusoe daydreams of sandy spits, coconut forests and the sweet indulgence of time slowing down. The ship cruises weekly between Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru and Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa.
“Welcome to the Four Seasons third island resort,” jokes Areef, the cruise director, as guests board the ship for a multi-day adventure on the Indian Ocean. Crew in starched white shorts and polo shirts hand out chilled towels and give passengers a tour of the hand-polished vessel, from the PADI five-star dive centre to the ship’s restaurant and al fresco dining area. The Explorer is barely at sea for half a day before Abo has the dive team loading fresh air tanks onto a traditional dhoni longboat. “We’re coming up to a beautiful thila—a coral head that rises from the sea bottom. It doesn’t have a name, so you might be the very first divers to explore it.”
Vicki, the ship’s marine biologist, leads divers down to 40 feet (12 metres) below the surface, where towering coral pillars and arches wrinkle the sides of the sea stack. Schools of crimson soldierfish swirl beneath a field of plate corals like jeweled tornados, while a kaleidoscope of fusiliers—all blue and yellow—sparks past. Beyond the coral meadow, off a sloping wall, an elegant whitetip reef shark languidly fins, an object of wonder and beauty instead of fear.
As the dives stack up and the islands drift by, a longing to learn more about local life settles in, and a village visit is arranged. Areef’s home island, Dhigurah, shows on the horizon one morning. Only 500 people live here—fishermen and their families, whose lives revolve around the tides and the seasons. Areef leads a tour ashore at his village, and he’s greeted like Ulysses returning to Ithaca, everyone calling out a cheerful “Assalam Alaikum!” (peace be with you).
At his home, Areef’s sister-in-law fries up chapati—small, thin tortillas—for scooping up mas huni, a spicy mix of tuna meal, onion, chilli and coconut. Between sips of strong Akbar tea, Areef talks about life in the islands, where children learn to swim before they walk, how to read the stars and where to find the best coconuts.
Time slows down when you disembark at one of two private island resorts, whether you spend it in a beach villa, overwater bungalow or spa treatment room.
Kuda Huraa comes into view one morning, and the rocking of the ship is replaced by soft sand underfoot. Although the journey through the outer Maldives has ended, the Resort still maintains a similar atmosphere. Hidden in lush gardens off the main sandy streets, its villas are designed in the traditional Maldivian style, with walls constructed of fist-sized coral stones just like Areef’s home on Dhigurah is.
There is time now to explore the resort side of island life—ride a small dhoni across the lagoon to the Island Spa for a local “healing recovery” ritual, join a traditional Baraabaru cooking class, or simply sit in the shallows of the villa’s plunge pool and read about Ibn Battuta, the famed 12th-century Muslim explorer who longingly described the Maldives as “one of the wonders of the world.” (A copy of the colourful journal he kept while travelling awaits in each of the Explorer’s cabins.)
Battuta knew what it felt like to end a journey to the Maldives, how the islands stayed in one’s soul. “Travelling, it leaves you speechless,” he wrote of his departure from the Maldives. “And then turns you into a storyteller.”