Editor’s Note: This CNN Travel series is, or was, sponsored by the country it highlights. CNN retains full editorial control over subject matter, reporting and frequency of the articles and videos within the sponsorship, in compliance with our policy.
Glass-bottomed bathrooms, roof-deck water slides and stairs leading directly into the ocean. What could be dreamier? For travelers yearning for a tropical escape, overwater villas are the epitome of vacation goals.
While Tahiti may have started the overwater trend in the 1960s, the Maldives has undoubtedly perfected it.
This year marks 50 years of tourism for the idyllic Indian Ocean nation, and today, there are over 150 resorts welcoming guests with a cold towel and a coconut, or other signature treats. Best of all, these resorts are committed to sustainability, featuring everything from water desalination plants to reef restoration projects.
Ready to book that trip? Here are 12 of the best overwater villas in the Maldives. (Starting rates are in US dollars per night.)
One of the smallest and most sustainable resorts in the Maldives, Kudadoo has just 15 overwater residences powered entirely by solar panels.
Designed by Japanese architect Yuji Yamazaki, it has a modern ryokan aesthetic, most notably in its onsen-inspired bathing area.
Covered in latticework wood patterns, the materials used come from sustainably managed forests in New Zealand, Canada and Indonesia.
Each residence has a plunge pool, a glass-bottomed deck section for peeping at parrot fish and a private butler to get you anything you want, at any time – all included.
Kudadoo Maldives, Kudadoo Island, Lhaviyani Atoll . Rates start at $3,000++ per night, all-inclusive.
Thanks to social media, aerial views of Soneva Jani’s winding jetty and private water slides have become synonymous with the Maldives.
But Soneva has also become synonymous with sustainability.
Its never ending initiatives, including upcycling just about everything with its Waste to Wealth program, Eco Centre, carbon-neutral status, beef-free menu, plastic-free policy and sprawling organic on-site garden make it a world leader in sustainable luxury.
Its 51 Water Retreats range from a one-bedroom with no slide (due to low tide) to a four-bedroom palace perched over the crystalline waters of the Indian Ocean. Each is crafted with sustainable, whitewashed wood, endless plush seating areas and, for all but two, a retractable roof for stargazing.
The resort is divided into Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, each side easily accessible by speedboat, electric bike or butler-driven buggy. At the newly-opened Chapter 2, it’s an all-inclusive experience, including spa treatments at the new Soneva Soul spa.
Soneva Jani, Medhufaru Island, Noonu Atoll. Rates start at $2,340++ per night for a 1-bedroom Water Retreat.
The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands
At this new five-star island escape, the majority of its 100 villas are over water. Channeling the motion of the ocean, each is uniquely circular in design and outfitted with distinct, vertical wooden slats made from sustainable timber shipped over from Austria and Germany. The majority of the resort’s villas have solar-paneled roofs and management aims to have all 100 of them equipped with the technology by 2023.
The resort is perennially popular for Americans using points on a stay, but with so many people spending time in their villa, you’d never know it. Guests can spend the entire day cooling off in their villa’s infinity pool, reading on its lavish loungers or snorkeling off its expansive outdoor deck.
If underwater activities are your thing, The Ritz is the first Asia Pacific resort to feature Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of The Environment program. These highly skilled marine biologists show guests how they use drones to spot and cut off fishing nets caught in reefs and track stingray behavior. They also lead guided underwater sessions, including an illuminating night snorkel.
The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands, Fari Islands, North Male Atoll. Rates start at $1,700++ per night.
The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort
The 44 overwater villas at the St. Regis are designed to look like the manta rays you may see swimming underneath them. Modern and minimalist, the bathrooms are covered in slick marble, while the bedrooms are lined with bright, Scandi-style timber. The beaded room divider and sea foam green decor add a tropical vibe to the sleek space.
If you’re planning a family vacation and don’t mind a major splurge, book the John Jacob Astor Estate. This three-bedroom overwater villa is the largest accommodation on the island. Equipped with a gym, cinema room, three pools and private massage rooms for every bedroom, it doesn’t get any swankier than this.
Behind the glitz and glam, the island has its own fully automated bottling plant to remove plastic water bottles from the island. Alongside it is a recycling plant and organic waste compost used to fertilize the island’s organic herb and vegetable garden, which provides the resort with 100% of its mint and basil.
The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, Vommuli Island, Dhaalu Atoll. Rates start at $1,999++ per night.
InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort
This IHG resort opened in 2019 with 81 beach, overwater and lagoon options (a clever hybrid of the two categories). Its 24 striking overwater villas have infinity plunge pools and sublimely serene views from the soaking tub.
Each is a beachy design delight with gray concrete floors and white brushed walls offset by creative pops of color like yellow, rope-woven room dividers, blue-two-toned rugs and stylish, yet subtle, orange furniture.
With a noticeable juvenile manta ray population in the atoll’s Maamunagau Lagoon, the resort works with Manta Trust researchers to aid in the education and conservation of these giant, playful fish and their habitat.
InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort, Maamunagau Island, Raa Atoll, Rates start at $1,090++ per night.
Velaa Private Island
It’s hard to fault the 47 exquisitely custom-made villas and residences on this pristine island. Built in 2013, they look brand new, with every inch perfectly finished by a team of craftsmen from Europe.
In the local Dhivehi language, Velaa means turtle, so guests can spot turtle motifs around the villas and the island. Tumbled travertine covers the bathrooms, and the strategic use of mirrors makes the already spacious rooms feel larger. Thoughtful aquatic touches like a fish scale accent wall made from clam shells and puka shell-lined mirrors can be found throughout.
Apart from leading one of the Maldives’ largest coral regeneration programs, Velaa’s Green Awareness Program aids every local island in Noonu Atoll with sustainable tools and education on green waste management practices.
Velaa Private Island, Noonu Atoll. Rates start at $2,400++ per night during low season.
A quick 25-minute speedboat ride from Velana International Airport takes you to this barefoot island paradise.
Celebrating their 10-year anniversary, the stellar service here is a big part of the island’s charm, but its overwater villas aren’t far behind. Split into 10 categories, some of the 45 sustainably-built villas come with pools, and some with multiple bedrooms.
For those who love seclusion, the resort’s Crusoe Residences are second to none. These seven rustic-chic, thatched-roof villas standalone in the turquoise water. Sure, adventurous guests can swim to and from, but why would you when you have your own boat to motor around in. Plus, there’s a crew of drivers on-call at any time.
Known for serving some of the best vegan food in the Maldives, chef Harinath Govindaraj takes guests on tours of the organic gardens ending with a vegan feast prepared in front of you. The resort is also starting a chicken farm for daily fresh eggs.
Gili Lankanfushi, Lankanfushi Island, North Malé Atoll. Rates start at $1,314++ per night in low season.
Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi
A stay at the Waldorf Astoria Ithaafushi starts with style. Accessible by a 45-minute luxury yacht ride from the airport, it’s one of the larger five-star resorts in the Maldives. There are 55 overwater villas and two standalone Stella Maris villas among the property’s 118 accommodation options.
While the interiors are elegant and contemporary with a signature glass-bottomed closet floor, you’ll want to spend all your time outside, soaking in this piece of paradise. The overwater villas have more outdoor space than indoor, including an infinity pool large enough for laps, a swinging daybed, a cabana and multiple overwater hammocks. At the ultra-luxe Stella Maris villas, there is a two-story deck with a dining area and BBQ station.
When you do decide to leave the villa, join the resort’s marine biologist in making and planting a coral line in the coral nursery. Guests who adopt coral will receive photos and updates on its growth every three months until its planted in the house reef.
Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, Ithaafushi Island, South Male Atoll. Rates start at $2,240++ per night.
Glamorous. Feminine. Sustainable. That’s JOALI Maldives in a nutshell. It’s also what makes it one of the most fabulous resorts in the Maldives.
Its 49 overwater villas line one of the longest jetties in the islands. Each is decked out with sky-high cathedral ceilings, hand-carved decorative doors, rose-gold finishes and pops of pretty pastels. The most difficult decision of the day is whether you should wash the sea salt off in the stunning emerald green marble shower or the tropical outdoor shower lined with bright green bamboo tiles.
This female-owned, art-immersive resort places high importance on opportunities for Maldivian women. JOALI’s Women in Art program gives local female artists a platform to showcase their art and do workshops with guests. They also partner with local island schools to host artistic lessons for young girls.
JOALI Maldives, Muravandhoo Island, Raa Atoll. Rates start at $2,040++ per night.
There are a few concepts that don’t exist at Nautilus: edges and time. Its 26 villas and residences are made of entirely curved walls, resembling the flow of waves lapping on its shores.
The resort’s motto is, “time stands still.” Guests at this Maldivian-owned hideaway can do or eat anything whenever they want, day or night. It’s an entirely bespoke experience in an ultra-relaxed beach haven.
The 11 overwater houses, residences and retreat are the epitome of boho-chic with braided tapestries and bright pieces of custom-made furniture. The glass-bottomed living room cut-out is a nice touch, as is the custom-made, wooden beaded chandelier and geometric floor patterns throughout.
This Maldivian-owned resort aims to safeguard its home. Nautilus works with surrounding islands to purchase locally grown produce, buy handcrafted decor and employ craftsmen. It’s also the resort with the highest concentration of Maldivian citizens in management positions.
The Nautilus, Thiladhoo, Baa Atoll. Rates start at $2,700++ per night.
Jumeirah Maldives Olhahali Island
Miami Beach meets Mykonos at this trendy, all-white resort. Formerly LUX * North Male, it’s recently had a Jumeirah rebrand.
The island’s overwater villas are impressively large and stylishly decorated, given the price point. From one to three-bedroom options, each has a rooftop terrace for private BBQ dinners or movie screenings under the stars. The pink touches, from the rooftop’s sunscreen to the tiles around the infinity pool, add to the resort’s youthful vibe.
Speaking of youth, the resort’s complimentary coral planting initiative is a popular way for families, particularly children, to get involved in marine education and hands-on coral propagation to bloom on the island’s house reef.
Jumeirah Maldives Olhahali Island, Olhahali Island, North Male Atoll. Rates start at $1,300++ per night.
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru
Not to be confused with its sister property, Four Seasons Resort Kuda Huraa, the overwater villas at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru are a slight step above.
Cobalt blues and charcoal grays decorate the Maldivian-style thatched oasis. For sun-worshippers, the villa’s giant overwater nets and soft loungers are made for working on a solid base tan (using reef-safe sunscreen, of course).
Its long lap pool is the perfect spot to watch the light change, whether you’ve selected a sunrise or sunset villa. If you’ve had enough H2O for the day, the second-story stargazing loft is a fun alternative.
Famous for its Maldivian turtle rehabilitation center and conservation program, the Four Seasons also has a manta ray program. Home to The Maldivian Manta Ray Project, researchers at the resort have been studying these gentle sea giants to better understand and lobby to protect them around the globe since 2005.
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, Baa Atoll. Rates start at $2,200++ per night.
An earlier version of this feature included an incorrect villa rate for JOALI Maldives. It has since been updated with the correct price.