Exploring the Baa Atoll: The Maldives' only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

Ellen Millard

4 January 2021

As the Maldives’ only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Baa Atoll is home to one of the largest groups of coral reef in the Indian Ocean — and The Westin Miriandhoo Maldives resort might just be the best place from which to experience this underwater other world

4 January 2021 | Ellen Millard

There’s a small creature nibbling at the hedgerows that separate my villa from the beach and the indigo ocean beyond. Its furry feet pad at the sand as it ducks and dives between branches, scouting out the most delicious of leaves for its snaffled feast. When I tell the hotel staff of this sighting, there’s excitement. The legend is true. A security guard, whose own claims went dismissed some months previously, is venerated. Together we are the only two on the island who have seen it, but now I have photographic evidence: black, white, pink-eyed and, 
I imagine, not believing his luck, a bunny rabbit basks in the Maldivian sunlight.

The Westin Maldives Island Villa
The Westin Maldives Island Villa

The photograph is shared among the staff, and a new conversation begins. How did it get here? The animal is clearly not a native, though he has drifted into island life seamlessly. The only way to arrive at Miriandhoo, the 14-acre islet home to The Westin Maldives Resort, is by seaplane or boat. Unless a freak of nature, somehow able to swim the breadth of the Indian Ocean (at this point, I wouldn’t put it past him), then this rabbit is either somebody’s escaped pet or an endearing stowaway – or, perhaps, both.

What we do know for sure is that he is stranded on Miriandhoo until further notice, and I can’t help but envy him. Previously undeveloped land, this tiny island was transformed into The Westin’s first Maldivian hotel in 2018. Envisioned by Italian architectural firm PEIA Associati, the 70 villas and suites are inspired by the marine life that surrounds them, with roofs shaped like the shells of turtles, overwater villas arranged in a fish motif and all paths pointing to the ocean – the land villas, all 41 of them, lead directly to the white sand beach, while the 29 that hang over the ocean are a mere hop, skip and a splash into the waves below.

Overwater Villas at The Westin Maldives
Dinner on the beach at The Westin Maldives

And it’s water worth swimming in. Comprising 1,200 islands in a sequence of 26 atolls, the Maldives is known for its abundance of coral reefs, of which there are more than 250 species intricately-laced beneath the turquoise waves. Together they account for five per cent of the world’s reef area, and Miriandhoo is home to some of the most special. The island is located in the Baa atoll, the Maldives’ only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, designated so in 2011 for its bounty of marine life. Found just north of the Kaashidhoo Kandu channel, which divides the northern chain of atolls, the Baa supports one of the largest groups of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean.

It is spectacular. Below the waves, hawksbill turtles share space with docile reef sharks, while fish of every colour, pattern and persuasion flit in and out of pastel-coloured crevices. The nearby Hanifaru Bay is a mantra ray feeding ground, the largest of its kind in the world, and there’s a popular mating point for whale sharks.

The Westin Maldives Overwater Villa
The Westin Maldives Overwater Villa

The atoll’s UNESCO status limits commercial fishing and tourism activities to certain areas, which require certification and a license from the country’s Environmental Protection Agency. With the Maldives’ biodiversity forming the bedrock of its economy, this ensures that its protection is of paramount importance, not just for the wildlife but for those who live around it.

It also means that visitors who take part in excursions can do so knowing that they are regulated to ensure minimal environmental impact. Those with strong sea legs can catch a boat to the best snorkelling spots with The Westin’s expert guides, or arrange an excursion to stake out the deep blue for dolphins. Less seafaring parties can simply paddle in the shallow waters around the hotel – there is much to be found among the seaweed-strewn stilts of the overwater villas.

The Westin Maldives
Main swimming pool at The Westin Maldives

Even better, book a massage in the resident spa and find yourself looking down at a glass floor and a view of the ocean below, with schools of fish and scuttling crabs providing entertainment. Wellness is the key message at the hotel, and while simply pitching up and sunbathing would do anyone a world of good, The Westin offers a series of amenities and experiences tailored to mind and body. There’s a state-of-the-art fitness centre, running sessions that start at the crack of dawn (my invitation was politely declined) and yoga classes taken under the guise of an astonishingly flexible man named Guru. Food is as much a part of the wellness package, and the three restaurants – Island Kitchen, Hawker and The Pearl – balance nutrition with indulgence, serving pan-Asian, street food-inspired and Japanese cuisine respectively. The Sunset Bar, a low-key lounge overlooking the ocean, is the perfect setting for sundowners.

It’s all too easy to slip into routine. The days on Miriandhoo are effortless, the island a blanket of peace. The only disturbance comes from the odd screech of the resident flying foxes, which chatter in the trees and occasionally swoop across the sky, their giant wings casting shadows on the sand. They rule the roost here, the largest animals on the land, holding sway over the other critters on the island. Do they know there’s an outsider in their midst? The lone rabbit, elusive and shy – and having the time of his life.

From £608 for two people per night on a B&B basis, westin.com/maldivesmiriandhoo