Er, could you just remind me where they are?

The Republic of Maldives (independent from Britain since 1965) is made up of a long, thin, north-south string of atolls in the Indian Ocean, south-west of Sri Lanka.

The country's 26 atolls contain 1 190 islands. Around 200 are inhabited by Maldivians; 87 are resort islands set aside for tourists.

Atoll? That's an odd word...

Atoll is just about the only word in English that derives from the national language of the Maldives, Divehi.

Atolls, or atholhu, are rings of small, low-lying islands around a central lagoon. From the air they look like delicate green garlands tossed casually on a turquoise sea.

They are one of the most beautiful geological formations on earth.

Atolls are created when an extinct volcano collapses on itself, creating a white-sand-and-green-palm necklace of low-lying islands surrounding a lagoon where the crater of the volcano used to be.

The whole is protected from big waves by an encircling coral reef. Since most atolls are in the middle of the vast emptiness of the Indian and Pacific oceans, they act as an essential marine oasis for species that need a bit of land or shallow waters to survive.

But does that make for a good bit o' fun in the sun?

What that means for swimmers is clear: shallow, warm waters with easy, protected access to spectacular reefs, rife with a dense rainbow of tropical fish.

As a result, the Maldives has some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.

Even better, the experience is relatively guilt free. The Maldivian government, under the guidance of the award-winning environmentalist and president of the nation, His Excellency Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, keeps a tight control over the environmental and social impact of tourism.

The main way this mini-miracle has been accomplished is by restricting tourists to self-contained resort islands.

The resorts have to comply with strict environmental controls, such as asking visitors to take dead batteries home with them. If a resort breaks the rules, it's broken its lease. Goodbye.

Seems a bit extreme

For the Maldives, environmental awareness is crucial.

The islands are often so narrow that with a turn of the head, you can see both the lagoon and the ocean.

Adding to their vulnerability, most are less than 2m above sea level, protected from high seas only by a coral reef.

Unfortunately, reef corals are sensitive animals. They prefer pristine water at a temperature of 23-27°C and will die if it goes a few degrees either way outside their comfort zone. Nor can the water be more than 30m deep or the salinity levels drop too much.

Any further rises in sea levels could sink the country.

This isn't gloom-and-doom science fiction. In 1987 and 1991, storm surges washed over a central atoll and, at one point, inundated the international airport and one-third of the capital.

So is it safe?

Yes. Experiments are being done on growing artificial reefs and a massive breakwater has been built around the capital to protect it from untoward surges.

The government has also banned destructive forms of fishing and coral mining, implemented nation-wide education programs and declared threatened reefs off-limits until they can regrow.

Okay, what are the resorts like, then?

Most tourists book into one of the 87 self-contained resorts.

Generally, each resort has its own island. They all also have their own feel and easy access to great water sports.

It used to be that each resort targeted a different nationality, but with more and more Brits coming in through major tour operators like Kuoni, the resorts are becoming more polyglot.

The divide is now class of service, rather than country of origin. For example, Universal Enterprises (whose Maldivian founder MU Maniku started modern tourism in the Maldives by bringing in a group of 22 Italian tourists in 1972 and putting them up with friends) is the largest chain and owns eight resorts and a cruise ship, each going after a very different clientele.

All their resorts have very lush gardens, as you would expect from places run by an ex-minister of agriculture.

Baros Holiday Resort is a small, intimate, upscale destination with 59 cabanas and suites.

But their most romantic and exclusive accommodations are the 16 individual wooden, thatched-roofed cottages, built on stilts over the lagoon.

You can step from your private balcony straight into the massive tropical fish tank that is the Indian Ocean.

It is the sort of refined, no-news, no-shoes place where you can tell the shoes that people aren't wearing are expensive. (

If that is all too sedate for you, you can try a place like Full Moon Beach Resort (, where there are 52 water bungalows, 150 guest rooms, a big pool, tennis courts, gym, heath centre, a cybercafé, copies of the International Herald Tribune on every counter, five restaurants, an on-staff artist and, yes, karaoke, often in the company of the resort's genial manager.

All the resorts have great beaches. For a full list of resorts, see

Resorts are fine, but what if I want to get to know the locals?

In an effort to limit cultural damage caused by the waves of foreigners, most of the 200 or so "inhabited" islands (ie where the Maldivians live) are off-limits to tourists without special government dispensation, though many resorts run day-trips to nearby inhabited islands.

That said, the capital, Malé, where about 75 000 people - around a third of the country's population - live, is highly accessible. There are just a few things you should know before you go there.

The Maldives is an Islamic country. Bikinis and booze are allowed on the resort islands but inhabited islands, including the capital, insist on a bit more decorum.

Which isn't to say you need be covered from top to toe. President Gayoom (and his highly-regarded wife) are Islamic scholars.

He has encouraged a very interesting path of social development for his country.

As one woman radio producer describes it: "Our religion is Islam but our culture is Maldivian."

The result is a place where they follow the Islamic tradition of the rich donating money to help the poor, but women are able to choose if they want fully to cover their hair (the President's wife, for example, doesn't).

The country has practically no crime. The fact that it is small enough to function like one large extended family has a lot to do with it.

Everyone knows someone who knows everyone else. Lack of anonymity leads to lack of opportunity. Also, the laws tend to be clear, simple and flexible, within very well-defined limits.

Or as, Cal Bailey, a Canadian who worked in the Maldives puts it: "I think the rules are, that if you abide by certain rules, you can break a lot of others, but if you break even one of certain rules, you're a pariah."

How do I meet some of these interesting people?

Maldivians tend to be shy, but curious and charming.

A great way of hanging out in a relaxed atmosphere is to go down to Malé's artificial beach in the evening, when the kids are finished school and the work day is ending.

Entire families wade into the protected shallow waters. Women and men swimmers must wear at least T-shirts and knee-length shorts.

Some Maldivian women go into the water with long pants and burkas.

If you are in a group of tourists, it is likely no one will talk to you, but if you are a woman on your own, it shouldn't take long before a Maldivian girl "accidentally" splashes you as a way of starting up a conversation.

If you are a man alone, it might take a bit more creativity on the part of the Maldivian boys to figure out a way of starting a conversation without causing any offence.

One tactic, used on a travelling companion of mine, involved a teenage boy wading over to him and saying with a smile: "Hey, sorry about yesterday."

My friend parried with: "What?"

The teen: "Sorry about last night, you know..."

At which point the teen's friends showed up and started laughing, explaining: "He's a psycho."

So my friend asked: "Are you a psycho?"

And the teen replied: "No, but I have a psyche." The ice was soundly broken. Needless to say, many people speak English. Well.

Another option is to keep an eye open for music shows. Maldivian music is a wonderful blend of Hindi musicals, Arabic vocalising and even a touch of Western pop.

There are regular concerts around Malé. And if Miriam Didi, the soulful "Blind Singer Of Thinadhoo" (a southern atoll) is playing, don't miss it.

What else goes on in the big city?

Malé (Mah-Lay) is about 2km by 1km, but recent development has turned it into a mini-Manhattan (without the crime but with the traffic).

You can find everything from a traditional, dock-side fish-market to a cybercafé (

Business hours 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.

There are also several good museums that help explore some of the Maldives' 3 500 years of human history.

The country is on a maritime-trade crossroads and has been influenced (sometimes forcibly) by everyone from the Sri Lankan Bhuddists to Arab traders to the Portuguese.

Particularly beautiful is the Hukuru Miski, the oldest mosque in the country. It dates from 1656 but has a superb 13th-century carved wooden panel commemorating 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.

Okay, I am convinced. When is the best time to go?

Its equatorial position gives the Maldives an average yearly temperature of about 28°C. High season (hot and dry) is November to April. Low season (hot and sometimes wet) is the rest of the year. But above all, go soon, because:

Last word

The Maldives is a rare jewel, a place of astounding beauty and grace. It's a well-run country with no homelessness or starvation. But there is a threat. And we are the cause.

According to His Excellency Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: "We did not contribute to the impending catastrophe to our nation; and alone, we cannot save ourselves.

"The profound dilemma of environmental transition is a global one, and its implications are worldwide and long-term. Though the Maldives and other low-lying archipelagic nations may have to suffer the most immediate and the most extreme effects of a global sea rise, there is potential danger to a significant proportion of the world's population.

"The Maldives and many other small states have put the protection and preservation of the environment at the top of their national agendas.

"However, efforts at the national level alone are not enough, for environmental problems do not begin or end at the border.

"Depending on how we respond, we will either be all winners or all losers."

When Charles Darwin saw the relatively nearby Indian Ocean atoll of Aldabra from the HMS Beagle, he wrote: "The ocean throwing its waters over the broad reef appears an invincible, all-powerful enemy, yet we see it resisted and even conquered by means which at first seem most weak and inefficient... yet these low, insignificant coral islets stand and are victorious."

Unless we all join the battle soon, if only by buying energy-efficient home appliances and relying more on public transport, the "low, insignificant coral islets", with their precious cargo of endemic species, will loose the fight and disappear forever.

And we will truly all be the losers...