A guide to the Northern Atolls

Escape to the lesser-known Northern Atolls to find your own slice of achingly perfect paradise. Pristine beaches await at thoughtfully managed resorts and beyond, at the many truly deserted coral outposts where you can play at being castaway. In this quieter part of the archipelago, it may feel like you really have the seas to yourself. And what seas they are – get your diving gear on in Baa Atoll to see manta rays and giant whale sharks.

  1. Baa Atoll 
  2. Lhaviyani Atoll  
  3. Raa Atoll 
  4. Noonu Atoll 
  5. Shaviyani Atoll 
  6. Haa Dhaalu Atoll 
  7. Utheemu atoll 
  8. Ihavandhippolhu Atoll  

There are seven atolls to the north of the Malé Atolls. Although a couple of uninhabited islands opened there as resorts in the 1980s, the northern atolls have only more recently become easily accessible to tourists, and the resorts here are now accessible by seaplane. Here’s our lowdon on everything you need to know about the Maldives’ most northerly region. 

In collaboration 
with Rough Guides

1. Baa Atoll

Baa Atoll is the closest to the Malé Atolls, and home to the local inhabited island of Eydhafushi. Some of its 50 uninhabited islands, their vegetation untouched and their beaches rarely trodden, are used for excursions by the neighbouring resorts. The reefs are in pristine condition, and the unspoilt natural beauty of the atoll is readily apparent to divers and snorkellers. Large numbers of mantas and whale sharks visit the atoll during the southwest monsoon, especially from May to July.

Eydhafushi   

Baa Atoll’s thriving capital Eydhafushi has a busy harbour and is one of the islands frequently visited by tourists staying in the atoll’s major resorts. It’s typical of an inhabited island that has developed through income from islanders working in the tourist and fishing industries, rather than tourism per se, and in a way resembles a miniature Malé.

Thulhaadhoo 

That’s to be found across the atoll, at Thulhaadhoo. This island is famed for its lacquer craftwork, although fishing is its main industry - so the sandy lanes of Thulhaadhoo are deserted during the day when most of the men are out at sea. Local lacquer workers create vases and chess pieces from wood on ancient lathes. These objects are lacquered using a traditional method in distinctive colours of black, yellow and red, with hoops, scrolls and flourishes. Pieces are much sought after as souvenirs, but since they are pre-sold and made on assignment, it’s surprisingly difficult to actually buy them on the island.

Fulhadhoo 

Visitors to Fulhadhoo will enjoy the remoteness and wildness of this island – when you’re on the 1km-long beach, you can feel like you’ve found your way to the very edge of the world. With less than 150 residents and only a few guest houses, being here is a true escape. 

Reethi 

The Reethi Beach Resort really makes the most of the natural playground here, with a raft of activities to get out and enjoy it. In addition to a fine array of water sports, you can easily join a range of excursions to the nearby inhabited islands in the Baa Atoll, where traditional life is perhaps less changed than in the more touristy parts of the Maldives. Don’t miss taking part in a lobster barbeque on a neighbouring deserted island, too. 

Soneva Fushi 

The oldest resort in the atoll, Soneva Fushi – on the island of Kunfunadhoo – is a rare beast in the Maldives for both its size (a strip 1.5km long) and natural vegetation which carpets the island. Accommodation is in lavish timbered villas, kitted out with trendy designer accessories, each villa set in a plot of wilderness by the beach, providing privacy to its discerning and possibly honeymooning guests. A devotion to eco-consciousness prevails, but with all creature comforts. The size of the resort means that many guests get around by bicycle. 

Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru 

Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru occupies the entire 18-hectare island here, a natural wonder with its western tip sloping into a 2km lagoon and surrounded by white sand beaches. The resort is deeply immersed in positive ecological action; the island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and many of the activities and programme at the resort are committed to promoting conservation, such as assisting with turtle rehabilitation in the marine centre. Don’t miss a ride on the amazing ‘Flying Triggerfish’, a seaplane fully customised for both luxury and colourful appearance, and probably one of the most Instagrammable things you’ll ever see. 

2. Lhaviyani Atoll

To the west is Baa’s twin, Lhaviyani Atoll, with mostly uninhabited islands. The capital is Naifaru, which has a branch of the Bank of Maldives and used to be renowned for the skills of some of its inhabitants in indigenous medicine. Today, it’s a colourful jumping off point to other local islands and known for its coral handicrafts. Unusually, most of the islands here – which are large with dense vegetation – are situated on the outer rim of the atoll. For wreck divers, one of the greatest appeals here is a dive site known as ‘the boatyard’, which offers divers the unique opportunity of enjoying two wrecks in one dive.

Kuredu 

One of the oldest resorts in the Maldives (opened in 1978), Kuredu, at the northern tip of the atoll was originally a camping resort with just 48 beds. Now it has spread throughout the island (which has over 3km of beach) and is truly something of a mega resort, with accommodation for 387 rooms of every possible type, and a golf course. There are 40 dive sites within boat distance, although the resort offers lots to do on shore and has a reputation as an all-inclusive party island.

3. Raa Atoll

The large Raa Atoll, with 90 islands, lies to the east. It is actually two natural atolls, combined for administrative purposes, and measures 65km from north to south, and 28km from east to west.

The atoll’s capital is Ugoofaaru, and the largest fishing fleet in the seafaring Maldives is based here. North of it is the local island of Rasgatheemu. where houses are located in their own coral-walled compounds where breadfruit and oleander flowers can be seen growing as smoke billows from coral chimneys and fish is cured. It makes for a fascinating and picturesque wander. 

Kudafushi 

Nestled in the north of Raa Atoll, Kudafushi is a relatively new resort and you can tell, with the fresh and modern décor. It makes the most of this remote-feeling part of the Maldives, where the sand seems even whiter and the sky and sea more turquoise than ever. With lots of kids’ facilities as well as all the water sports you could want, there’s loads to do if you tire of just admiring the setting. 

Adaaran Select Meedhupparu 

For many years, the only resort in Raa Atoll was Meedhupparu. With an extensive range of beach villas surrounded by thick vegetation, as well as luxurious water villas linked by wooden jetty, this spacious development has lots to explore, including wide white beaches. Its special feature is an Ayurveda village where guests can experience traditional Sri Lankan herbal therapy. Local diving is also rich and hugely popular. 

Alifushi 

Visitors are warmly welcomed at Alifushi, located at the atoll’s northern tip. The flourishing boat-building industry on this inhabited island was begun by local carpenters and developed into a government-sponsored boatyard opened in 1983. Dhonis adapted from traditional style for motorised fishing are built from imported timber and sold on time-payment terms, thus encouraging both fishermen and boat builders. It’s possible to make a trip here and to other inhabited islands from Meedhupparu.

4. Noonu Atoll

To the west, Noonu Atoll has experienced its first real development in the last 15 years, with a few bases for visitors to explore this tranquil atoll. It shares the geographical atoll of Miladhunmadulu with its neighbour, Shaviyani Atoll. Manadhoo is its capital, while Velidhoo has links with tourism through the safari boats that are made and repaired there. The extraordinary biodiversity of the waters here is what led to the nation’s first National Marine Park being located here, covering 1,000 hectares of water. 

Velaa 

Velaa takes the concept of “private” to the next level, with a philosophy that assumes each guest will feel like it is indeed their own private island. With only 43 villas and two four-bed houses, all kitted out with the best of everything, this is luxe gone stratospheric. It’s also ideal for sporty sorts, as there’s a golf range and tennis courts on site, in addition to all the watery activities – you want high-spec water toys like hoverboards to play with? You’ve come to the right place. After dark, dinner and drinks continue the high-quality, luxurious theme, with fine dining in atmospheric surroundings. 

5. Shaviyani Atoll

Shaviyani Atoll has several inhabited islands of cultural interest. The island of Narudhoo has some picturesque inland lakes, while Kaditheemu has historical relics, including the doorframe of the mosque on which is carved the oldest-known written Thaana script, which dates the original mosque to the 16th century. Thaana is the old version of the present-day script used for writing Dhivehi.

Feevah has a 17th-century mosque and is known for its production of jaggery (a fudge-like confection made from syrup produced from toddy extracted from the coconut palm). Maakadhoodhoo, the most populated island in the atoll, also produces this coconut-palm candy. 

JW Marriott Maldives Resort & Spa 

Ten years ago, there weren’t any resorts in Shaviyani Atoll. Now there’s a few places to stay, of which the JW Marriott is a popular choice for its bright, modern style, well-run amenities and choice of activities for all the family. Set against the remoteness of the location and ocean life to explore, it’s a great combination.

6. Haa Dhaalu Atoll

Forming the southern part of the natural atoll of Thiladhunmathi, Haa Dhaalu Atoll has one of the most developed islands in the north, Kulhudhuffushi. Its inhabitants are renowned for being strong, hence they are in demand in the construction industry and as seamen. Their income has helped develop the island with modern buildings. Faridhoo, in the centre of the atoll with about 100 inhabitants, lies 2.5m above sea level, making it one of the highest islands in the Maldives. 

Hanimaadhoo 

There is a domestic airport on the island of Hanimaadhoo in the north of the atoll that gives access to the resorts in the area. Hanimaadhoo has a good anchorage and there is a jetty within walking distance of the airport for transfer of passengers to resorts. The island, with over 500 inhabitants, is well developed with cars and paved roads, nothing to sneeze at round here.

Visitors to the island can make the most of the 7km-long, pristinely clean white-sand beach that runs down the length of the island. Off-shore, there is a vibrant house reef to explore. Being one of the larger inhabited islands, the centre is lush with green foliage, which provides many delightful, shady spots. There's a good handful of accommodation options and a decent amount of places to eat out. 

Hideaway Beach Resort & Spa 

The first of these resorts to access in the area is Hideaway Beach Resort & Spa, on Dhonakulhi Island in Haa Alif Atoll, the northern half of Thiladhunmathi Atoll. Here, in the far north of the archipelago, you can truly feel like you’re on the edge of the world. The glorious beaches – white, sweeping sands, framed by fish-teeming waters – and ultra-private villas make this a splendid choice for people looking to get away from it all in style. It’s also deeply romantic, feeling this remote, so expect a lot of honeymooners, though it’s also brilliantly set up for families. Children love to explore the trails (bicycles are provided) and there are special supervised activities for them ranging from island hide and seek to fishing lessons and treasure hunts, as well as a kids’ club.

7. Utheemu atoll

Guests staying in this atoll – whether on one of the few resort islands or as intrepid travellers on an inhabited one – have the opportunity to visit islands that are known to all Maldivians because of the part they played in the country’s history. In the centre of the atoll is Utheemu, the birthplace of Mohamed Thakurufaan, who liberated the islands from Portuguese rule. 

Visiting Utheemu is a unique experience, not only because of its historical connection but also because there is more to see than on other village islands. A broad avenue of sand leads from the beach to a grand, gnarled tree protected by a wall and known as the Sea Trumpet Tree. The tree is said to have grown from a thick branch planted by Mohamed Thakurufaan to repair his weaving loom, and it can indeed be dated to the time of his youth – the early 1540s. Weaving was an established industry in the Maldives during ancient times. 

The Boduthakurufaanu Memorial Centre flanks a square of sand and shady trees lined with the reclining, coir-webbed local style of chairs, called joli. Closeby is the highlight, the cottage of wooden panels and sliding doors where Mohamed Thakurufaan was born and brought up. Walls bedecked with white flags surround it. A guide shows visitors around, explaining about items of furniture and describing the hero’s exploits. Afterwards visitors are taken to the ancient mosque where Mohamed Thakurufaan worshipped and where his father is buried. 

8. Ihavandhippolhu Atoll

The natural atoll known as Ihavandhippolhu completes the northern atolls. The northernmost inhabited island of the Maldives is Thuraakunu. About 200 people live on the island and there is little for visitors to see; landing is difficult because of the swells and absence of a lagoon. India is about 590km to the northeast.

You could also be interested in

Find your perfect destination

Sign up to our newsletter

We'll send you exclusive offers and sneak peeks of our best deals,
plus travel tips and the latest advice on where you can go.