How to choose an island in the Maldives?

Feature Picking the perfect location depends on what you are looking for.

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For sheer escapism and luxury, a holiday in the Maldives is hard to beat. Yet although the capital, Male, is only a four-hour flight from Abu Dhabi, there are still hundreds of islands to choose from. There is no single best island that suits everyone, yet since most tend to be expensive, it pays to make the right choice. One important point to remember is that whereas a decade ago you could take it for granted that wherever you stayed you would look out over just ocean and a distant sprinkling of empty islands, now you are quite likely to face the villas of another tourist island, or, if you're staying on an island with a speedboat transfer time of only 15 to 20 minutes, to the unlovely high-rise skyline of Male. So caveat escapee. The one key question everyone should to ask before making their choice is: what will the view be? The original Four Seasons resorts, Kudu Huraa, for instance, which used to look out over a nearby empty island, has seen that island in turn become developed, and now has to suffer looking at new properties just a few hundred yards away. The Taj Exotica may make a virtue of being only 15 minutes from the airport, but its spa looks out at a scene reminiscent of a distant mini-Manhattan. And when you're after lazy days staring out to sea, that's not what you want at all.

Romance Huvafen Fushi Barefoot luxury at its coolest. The 43 villas have been brilliantly designed, with outstanding bathrooms (Kate Moss is a fan). By day you can loll around in The Lair, well stocked with books, CDs and DVDs, or pad off to the Lime spa. Located at the end of a wooden jetty, with overwater pavilions and two underwater treatment rooms, this is staffed with tiny, tough Thai masseuses, and offers engrossing extras such as live blood analysis. The food's excellent, whether sushi or rich pud, and by night you can descend into an underground private dining room and wine cellar where you're given hot stones on which to wriggle your toes and mitigate the chill, or hang out in a sand-floored bar which hosts regular sessions with scarily fashionable visiting DJs. And at 6pm sharp each day, a staffer appears with a bloody bucket for the ritual feeding of sting rays, who swish in like clockwork. Doubles from US$1,100 (Dh4,000) per night including breakfast. Mind-washing remoteness Dhonakulhi Relatively rustic but really remote, reached by a 45-minute seaplane transfer from Male, then a 20-minutes speedboat trip, this is where you can just about live the fantasy that you're adrift in the Indian Ocean with only a simple old five-star thatched cottage for shelter and a chef and masseuse for company. The villas ? 43 ? are much more secluded than is typical in the islands (30 yards apart, whereas even on the five-star islands some are barely three yards apart). No plasma-screen TVs, no grinning butlers to and nothing to spoil the view. The focus is the Hideaway spa, enterprisingly using sand for exfoliation treatments and coconut oil (about the only thing the Maldives produce apart from fish) as a moisturiser. Doubles from $650 (Dh2,300) including breakfast.

Back-to-nature escapism Banyan Tree Madivaru Six groupings of Napoleonically grand, South African-made tents, each grouping sleeping just two, fringe this remote little island, which has just a jetty, a semi-open air spa treatment room, a dining tent, and vast views of empty ocean (besides the central generator and sewage treatment plant that every island has to install and hide away somewhere, of course). Every staff member here is Maldivian, even the general manager, unusually, which helps create the gentle atmosphere. The beach ringing the island narrows to just a few feet in places, but is barely yards from where you lie in splendour at night, soothed asleep by the sound of the waves. This isn't camping as the outside world knows it. Waking to the beauty of morning in the Maldives, showering in your outdoor bathroom, then eating breakfast in the open air on your deck (all meals can be brought to you), so close to sand and sea, engenders an incomparable feeling of desert island freedom. Doubles from $1,000 (Dh3,600) including breakfast. Hours and hours in the spa Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru When Soneva Fushi opened a decade ago, the first five-star resort to be created in the Maldives, its jungly little Six Senses retreat in the centre of the island set the spa bar high. Subsequent spas competed by making a feature of overwater treatment pavilions. Now, on a former coconut plantation, Four Seasons' second resort in the Maldives - 102 bungalows ? has raised the bar again with an Ayurvedic village spa. A sprawling affair set among palms and dense vegetation, this invites you to retreat into not just your own cottage, as on Reethi Rah, but your own private, thatched-roof, multiple-pavilioned compound, for three or four-hour sessions of seamlessly sequential massages, baths, wraps and rituals conducted by a team of seriously expert Balinese therapists (and if you are nervously looking for the price list at this stage, you've come to the wrong island). The spa shop has been equally well-thought out, stocked with niche-brand clothes, cosmetics and other bits and pieces suitable for the new, better life you mapped out while on the massage table. Doubles from $1,200 (Dh8,600) including breakfast.

Tranquillity Cocoa Island White curtains flap in the breeze; emerging from the shower in your blinding white bathroom, you slip into a white waffle robe to serenely complete the scene. Hong Kong billionaire Christina Ong's tiny, minimalist Cocoa Island ? so small you could if minded to bound across it in about six leaps ? oozes chic, yet is sufficiently low-key that you could comfortably come on your own. You might get bored, though - with only 33 villas here (all over water), there's only one restaurant and bar. Still, with a kindle or stack of books in your bag, you would probably be a happy bunny. The Como Shambhala spa is just sand-floored simplicity and well-trained therapists. Doubles from $760 (Dh2,791), including breakfast. No news, no shoes Soneva Gili Marooned in your remote and isolated water villa, with water all around and no escape possible until a boat arrives, you are cut off from the world, perfectly placed to work out if the person you have come with is indeed The One or start your novel. In this all-over-water, 43-villa resort, the remotest are the water villas that kick sand in the face of other water villas, although the very grandest, the Waterworld-like Private Reserve, recently suffered the indignity of having a government-owned fish-processing factory opening on the all-too-close neighbouring island. Doubles from $2,353 (Dh8,642) including breakfast.

Wild extravagance One & Only Reethi Rah Bigger, slicker, more manicured and more lavish than all the other resorts put together: you either lap it up or reel in horror. Bodyguards accompany a good proportion of guests, including the King of Jordan. On arrival, butlers greet their charges with a foot massage, then make all necessary restaurant reservations (Japanese, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean?) as well as bookings for the tennis academy, splendid spa or deep sea fishing or diving trips on the appropriately sleek yacht (with crew to shower everyone with fresh water as they emerge from a dip in the ocean). The 130 villas are like small cathedrals and the children's club merits looking at even if you don't have children, with its miniature sunbeds set around a miniature pool, and the bar cries out for deals to be done in its dark embrace. Guests get chauffeured around on golf buggies and routinely dress up for dinner (and breakfast, and lunch). The ethos here isn't barefoot luxury, more $1,000-shoes and a different pair every night - high heels, even, which would look ridiculous and be wholly impractical on lesser islands. Enlarged to six times its original size by hotel magician Sol Kerzner, the island's only downside becomes evident when you take your shoes off to walk across your stretch of private beach to the ocean: in bare feet, you can just sense the concrete below the sand. Doubles from $1,050 (Dh3,700) including breakfast. Being active W Retreat & Spa On other islands your fellow guests might want to kill you if you started disturbing their peace by zooming around on a SeaBob, the cross between a jet ski and a body board featured on the latest Bond film, Die Another Day, and which can propel you over and under water at up to 20mph. On W, which attracts friends travelling together as much as couples, they will more likely be appreciatively assessing the insane fun you're having and mentally queuing up to have a go too. This is a lively little island, with 78 Bose-sound-equipped villas, the only underwater nightclub in the Maldives, and more than usual to do when you surface: parasailing, kite surfing and, when darkness falls again, the chance to pull on flippers and sink into the ocean for night-snorkelling. Doubles from $950 (Dh3,000) including breakfast. Taking the children Kanahura At Four Seasons' 96-room Kudu Huraa, the siting of a crèche and children's club right by the main pool is useful with very small children, but overall the 95-villa Kanahura is the best for over-sevens. There's a club a short walk down the beach, but the reason is more the design of the resort, built around a large central pool complex, which means that parents can easily keep a lazy eye on older children as they spend all day in the water. Doubles are a comparative bargain, too, from $625 (Dh2,296) per night, including breakfast. Travelling on a budget Vadoo Island Resort Fifteen minutes by speedboat from Male and one of the smallest islands in the Maldives, Vadoo was one of the first to be developed as a luxury island, and the first to build cottages on stilts. That was in 1988. It is showing its age now: design and furnishings all look outdated. But those original developers often bagged the best islands, and for the essentials, the reasons you come to the Maldives - white beaches, good marine life, total peace and quiet ? it's great. There are only 31 rooms here - some in two-storey blocks, some in cottages opening onto the beach, seven overwater ? and to keep things quiet none have a TV. The people behind the excellent Barberyn Ayurvedic Village in Sri Lanka have just opened an Ayurvedic spa here, and with the kitchens co-operating, you can really live healthily for a week. Diving is first class ? on the house reef and nearby Vadoo Channel. There's a great little bar on stilts. As it's only five miles from Male the capital is visible, but you just have to close your eyes to that and feel smug about what you're paying. Rooms from US$390. Showing you're on the pulse Alila Villas Hadahaa So new it hasn't even opened yet. The first resort in the Maldives to abide by Green Globe environmental certification rules, the Singaporean SCDA-designed Alila Villas will take its first guests next April, showcasing ? in a first for the Maldives ? a sharply modernist look.