Of all the world's dream destinations, the Maldives delivers most precisely what it promises in the brochures. Blinding white talcum sands. A sea of hues so blue they seem unimaginable, and certainly indescribable. Swaying palms, balmy breezes, astonishing reef encounters – all these come as standard. The question you need to ask yourself is, what else do I desire? A waterslide from my master suite straight into the lagoon? Done. A submarine restaurant where I can dine while surrounded by sea creatures? Take your pick. A private plane to fly me to those hard-to-reach surf breaks? At your service. With almost 1,200 islands scattered across the equator and just over 100 resorts, there's a Maldivian address to satisfy every whim.
One & Only Reethi Rah
Pitched at the ultra-luxury end of the spectrum, Reethi Rah caters to every appetite. Its signature Reethi space is three restaurants in one: classic Italian at Aqua (spaghetti alle vongole e bottarga, perhaps), French at Earth (foie gras ravioles), and Asian at Fire (Thai beef salad). There's contemporary Japanese and teppanyaki at Tapasake's overwater pavilion, breezy beachside Italian and pizze at Rabarbaro, and Middle Eastern flavours in the lantern-lit surrounds of Fanditha. The resort's newest addition, Botanica, serves 100 per cent organic produce among exotic blooms in an orchid house and alfresco under a spreading banyan tree. Or keep it simple with a private dinner at one of the island's 12 beaches.
North Malé Atoll, oneandonlyresorts.com
St Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort
From the air, St Regis Vommuli's six-room spa looks like a lobster. The bar, a soaring, streamlined form suspended above the ocean, takes the shape of a whale shark. The 44 overwater villas fan out across the ocean like a school of manta rays, and the library channels a giant conch. Opened in late 2016 and designed by Singapore's aptly named WOW Architects, Vommuli is the Maldives' most daring design statement. And with form comes function: all accommodation features hammocks, private pools and wine hampers.
Vommuli Island, Dhaalu Atoll, stregismaldives.com
Best for romance
The overwater bungalow has become a byword for romantic escape since the first appeared in French Polynesia in the 1960s. The Maldives claims more stilted love nests than any other honeymoon destination, so they can sometimes feel less singular and special than lovers anticipated. All 24 overwater bungalows at Gili Lankanfushi are set discreetly enough apart for privacy. And then there are the Crusoe Residences for a next-level romantic experience. These seven freestanding thatch mansions are perched in the centre of the lagoon, accessible only by boat, each with rooftop terraces, daybeds and a hammock strung across the water.
Lankanfushi Island, North Malé Atoll, gili-lankanfushi.com
Best private island
Four Seasons Private Island at Voavah
Picture the dream deserted-island hideaway. A seaplane arrival at an oasis of caster-sugar sand anchored in an ocean of aquamarine. The submarine world is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, home to the largest known population of manta rays. In the super-marine world, up to 22 guests stay in a three-bedroom villa, a two-bedroom stilt house in a lagoon, and a communal beach house – each with its own pool. Moored offshore are a private spa with on-call therapists and a 19-metre yacht with divemaster. Imagine beach parties, dinners on secluded sandbanks serenaded by a string quartet, and cocktails. Voavah is an island of absolute privacy and endless possibility, for $US38,000 a night.
Voavah, Baa Atoll, fourseasons.com
The scuba set are spoiled for adventures in the Maldives, but Baros remains a favourite both for its excellent reef and the fact it was one of the nation's first dive sites when it opened in the 1970s. Baros's two dive centres offer PADI certification and day or night dives on the island's renowned house reef, less than 30 metres from shore. Baros is 25 minutes by speedboat from Malé airport, so you'll be immersed in no time.
North Malé Atollo, baros.com
Six Senses Laamu
One of the most coveted breaks in the archipelago is Yin Yang, and it unfurls just offshore from the 97-room Six Senses Laamu on Olhuveli Island. It's known as one of the most reliable swells in the South Atolls, a sturdy barrel that peaks between June and September (when only more confident surfers should attempt it). A new partnership with Australian outfit Tropicsurf allows the resort to offer professional coaching to all comers.
Olhuveli Island, Laamu Atoll, sixsenses.com
Most resort islands have a house reef but only Amilla's offers direct access to the Blue Hole, arguably the Maldives' most celebrated snorkelling and dive site. It's located directly in front of the 67-room property, easily accessed by speedboat or a brisk swim, and is teeming with marine life. Given its prime location on the UNESCO-protected Baa Atoll, Amilla Fushi could easily rest on its corals, but its team of marine biologists work hard to interpret the underwater world for guests, who are encouraged to upload their photos to global research databases of manta rays and turtles. The resort is also handily located near Hanifaru Bay, a hotspot for whale sharks and manta rays and accessible only to snorkellers.
Baa Atoll, amilla.mv
Best for fun
Billed as the "naughty sister" of Amilla Fushi, since opening in June 2016 Finolhu has kept Maldives party-goers entertained with a non-stop roster of DJs and live acts that put the lie to the archipelago's reputation for rest and relaxation. When the sun's out it's chilled tunes and poolside lounging. At night the action swings to Finolhu's duplex beach-club bar, kept lively by a roster of event organisers including New York's Butter Group. Expect mermaids and stilt walkers, weekly pool and monthly full-moon parties and six annual events featuring headline performers and DJs airlifted in to rock the tropics.
Kanufushi Island, Baa Atoll, finolhu.com
Best adults-only extravagance
Huvafen Fushi has been a jetset staple since opening in 2004 with the world's first underwater spa. Drift from a glass-walled treatment room to one of 44 bungalows – each with plunge pool, espresso machine, and Bose surround-sound system – then to your choice of seven restaurants and bars (including a wine cellar set eight metres underground). It's set to become even more grown-up this year when Huvafen rebrands as an adults-only (21 and over) haven.
North Malé Atoll, huvafenfushi.com
Velaa Private Island
Indulgence knows no bounds in the Maldives. At Velaa Private Island, a 43-villa affair founded by the Czech billionaire financier Jiri Smejc, the six-room spa offers guests something found at no other resort in the region – a snow room. Conceived as a mini-archipelago of thatched huts hovering above a blue lagoon, this is one of only a handful of hotel spas managed by Clarins. It also features a Cloud Nine flotation suite, a stylised adult "cradle" designed to rock guests into a state of profound relaxation. Velaa also lays claim to the Maldives' only shaded tennis court, its largest wine cellar – and a submarine.
Noonu Atoll, velaaprivateisland.com
Best water sports
Lux South Ari Atoll
At the 193-villa Lux South Ari Atoll resort there's little rest for adrenaline addicts. When not airborne above the lagoon on flyboards and hoverboards they'll be kitesurfing, windsurfing or wakeboarding, jet-skiing or water-skiing, paddleboarding or simply paddling. Lux takes its watersports so seriously the resort has committed to adding a new activity every year to keep ahead of the competition. And its location in the southern atolls puts it within striking distance of four top-rated dive sites, including Maaya Thila, Sun Island (for whale sharks) and the Broken Rock canyon.
Dhidhoofinolhu Island, South Atoll, luxresorts.com
Como Cocoa Island
In a rarefied world where the best hotels routinely assign Man – and Woman – Fridays to cater to guests' every caprice, it's tricky to pinpoint the hotel offering the finest service. But Como Cocoa Island stands out for its long-serving staff and their uncanny ability to anticipate guest needs. This might be a Javanese yoghurt bath at the spa, or a beach barbecue of just-caught fish, or a Ginger Mojito delivered poolside. In premium two-bedroom villas, dedicated butlers elevate Cocoa Island service even further.
South Malé Atoll, comohotels.com
Best underwater dining
Dining on poached lobster medallions and potatocrusted bream in a submarine restaurant while thousands of wild aquatic creatures circle your table might not be everyone's idea of a relaxed meal.
But the Mediterranean-accented fare, underwater wine cellar and elegant design at Anantara Kihavah's Sea restaurant offer precisely what many travellers seek in the Maldives – the extraordinary and the unforgettable.
Kihavah Huravalhi Island, Baa Atoll, kihavah-maldives.anantara.com
Best for families
Soneva Fushi has a knack for making children feel like adults and adults feel like children – the perfect outcome for a family holiday. The wondrously equipped kids' club has a swim-up mocktail bar, waterslide, pirate ship and zip line, and craft classes among myriad diversions. For adults there's a Six Senses Spa, excellent dining and – most importantly – babysitting services. For all ages there's the ice-cream kiosk, dolphin spotting by dhoni and private screenings at the outdoor Cinema Paradiso. Accommodation options suit families of any size, and include a nine-bedroom residence with giant waterslide.
Kunfunadhoo Island, Baa Atoll, soneva.com
The night skies of the sparsely populated equator are some of the most dazzling on Earth and this new resort makes them a starring attraction. Each of Soneva Jani's one-, two- and three bedroom villas, arrayed around a five-island lagoon, feature retractable roofs to encourage heavenly contemplation. For more serious stargazing, there's an overwater observatory with a five-metre oculus telescope and a resident astronomer on hand.
Medhufaru Island, Noonu Atoll, soneva.com
Shangri-La's Villingili Resort & Spa
Iron men and women can claim the ultimate bragging rights on a nine-hole golf course on the equator, with par three and par four holes named for marine creatures. Test your metals from Manta Ray to Dolphin and, at tee number eight, experience the thrill of standing at the highest point (5.1 metres) of the entire island chain. The most notable handicap of Shangri-La Villingili's 7.5-hectare greens is the scenery – those coconut palms and beaches can really put you off your game.
Villingili Island, Addu Atoll, shangri-la.com
Best sunset cocktails
The first resort in the southern Thaa Atoll, Como Maalifushi has 66 suites and villas and uninterrupted views of this remote corner of the archipelago. The relative lack of development and passing traffic – on the water or in the air – makes Maalifushi one of the most attractive spots to watch wide-screen sunsets over the Indian Ocean. The best seats are at Tai, an overwater, open-air bar and restaurant where staff enhance the nightly light show with Japanese-accented cocktails such as the Hokusai, a wasabi-spiked medley of honey melon and Mukantei Kikusui sake.
Thaa Atoll, comohotels.com