Niyama Private Islands review: Escape to the Maldives for your hit of winter sun

From superlative surfing to a seductive spa, this tropical island resort offers laid-back luxury at its best

For a slice of paradise, Niyama Private Islands has all the Maldives tick boxes: talcum-soft beaches, enchanting vistas and unspoilt privacy. But the twin-island resort offers far-flung luxury with a difference; the vibe here is carefree-meets-casual, where you can as equally spend your days surfing as you can being pampered in the spa. Here’s why Niyama Private Islands should be on your five-star winter sun radar

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‘Dear Harriet, welcome to nature’s playground’ is written across the floor-to-ceiling mirror in my overwater villa at Niyama Private Islands. And what a playground it turns out to be. 

The Maldivian resort is on the Dhaalu atoll, a 45-minute hop by seaplane from Malé, and centres around two small islands, ‘Play’ and ‘Chill’, linked via a bridge. It’s a totally natural resort – no concrete slabs beneath the sand here – with beach villas lining the sugar-soft shore and a sweep of overwater villas perched above the most aquamarine seawater I have ever seen, it’s almost neon.

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On arrival, every guest is given a bicycle for the duration of their visit (each bike comes with a personalised wooden plaque, which you can keep – a lovely touch) and I spend my first morning on two wheels finding my bearings. The resort is 1.5 kilometres long and the sandy paths that criss-cross it are easy to navigate. Despite the balmy heat, the islands are protected by a canopy of coconut palms, banyan and banana leaf trees, providing welcome shade. I spot fruit bats and herons above, and whizz past white-breasted water hens (known locally as kanbili), their distinctive call the soundtrack to my stay. 

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Across the adjoining Play and Chill islands there are 134 villas and pavilions, no less than nine restaurants and the Drift Spa. The general idea is that Play caters to the adventurous and active (it’s home to the more family-friendly beach villas and buzzy places to eat), while the latter is all about kicking back and “soothing the soul” (here you’ll find the overwater villas and the spa, for example). The vibe throughout is delightfully casual and carefree, and the service is charming – Hafidh, the general manager, and his staff could not have been more welcoming. 

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If you are in a playful mood, there’s plenty to do. One of Niyama’s USPs is that, unlike other resorts in the Maldives where you only surf seasonally, you can catch waves 365 days a year here, thanks to its own unique break. A lesson with resident instructor Sam confirms what I already know: I can’t surf. But when the sun is setting over the deliciously warm water, and you’ve got a cocktail waiting for you at the Surf Shack beach bar, it really doesn’t matter. 

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Another day I head out on the boat to snorkel, some five kilometres offshore. Though the surface of the Indian Ocean is rather unassuming where we drop anchor, the moment I peer beneath, it’s a different story. Rainbow-coloured fish dart between the boulder corals, some of which are over 100 years old; we spy angelfish, parrotfish, clownfish, trumpetfish, needlefish, starfish… It’s so uplifting – in this era of environmental crisis – to see such a hive of underwater activity. 

On this occasion the rays, dolphins, turtles and reef sharks prove elusive, but I’m told they thrive in these waters. Indeed, the previous week, Niyama’s marine biologist Philippa came face to face with a six-metre-long whale shark (they’re harmless by the way). 

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If you want to relax, this resort is made for chilling. Hammocks dot the pristine shoreline (despite stories of pollution in the Maldives, I don’t see a single piece of detritus during my stay), while the Drift Spa is a leafy, six-treatment-room sanctuary offering bespoke treatments and therapies from around the world, with products including Codage and Intraceuticals. 

After filling out a form to work out my dosha (pitta-vata, since you ask, and recommended for me are swimming and moonlit walks), I opt for the Abhyanga treatment, an ancient herbal oil massage designed to unblock toxins and restore my energy flow. My therapist Esther applies the perfect amount of pressure; I know everyone says this post-massage, but that night I really do sleep well. 

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During my stay, I hardly see a soul; many guests, it seems, spend a lot of time in their villas and it’s easy to understand why. Mine, perched above the lagoon, is huge, all glass and reclaimed wood, with a double bed that takes centre stage, perfectly positioned for views of the waterscape beyond. The breezy ensuite bathroom, as big as the bedroom, has a circular bathtub and separate outdoor rain shower, from where, one evening, I spot a reef shark swimming below. 

Sliding doors open onto a private sundeck with its own infinity pool and Jacuzzi, or you can climb straight into the lagoon. Beach villas are equally impressive, with direct access to the shore; so too, the family-friendly pavilions. 

With your own personal thakaru (Niyama host) on hand at the touch of a WhatsApp (they’ll organise anything for you, from a tennis lesson and morning yoga to a trip on a traditional wooden dhoni), it’s tempting to stay put, but everyone has to eat. I could, of course, get in-room service – and I do one morning, opting for the popular floating breakfast, which is served in my private infinity pool – but dining at Niyama’s restaurants is not to be missed. 

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I feast on exquisite teppanyaki in the treetops at Nest, high above the jungle canopy; savour bold Afro Latin flavours at Tribal, where flaming torches serve up a side of drama against the night sky; and whizz across the water in a speedboat to Edge for fresh local seafood and Champagne. For a feet-in-the-sand experience you must try Took Took, where Asian street food dishes are prepared and grilled in the resort’s bespoke red tuk tuk on the beach at sunset. 

Head chef Luke also shows me around the new chef’s garden; amongst the almond trees and neat rows of lemongrass, there’s a table seating 12, where he serves a bespoke menu incorporating the spoils of the garden. For the night owls, Fahrenheit bar does an excellent line in rums and Subsix, the subterranean restaurant, becomes a club later in the evening.  

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But it’s not all chill hard, play hard. There’s important work going on at Niyama too. One afternoon, I sit in the warm shallows on the beach as Philippa tells me about the resort’s coral regeneration programme, which all guests can participate in. I learn how sensitive coral can be to change (you only have to look at the devastation caused by El Nino, which destroyed 90% of coral in the Maldives in 1998 to appreciate quite how much). It’s for this reason that the resort is propagating a coral nursery, to accelerate regeneration and strengthen the reef ecosystem, eventually creating its own house reef. 

Following Philippa’s example, I gently attach coral to a metal frame, before we place it a few metres out to sea, below the water, where the coral can grow safely on the frames without being knocked and broken. As we do this, it’s heartening to see that the coral nursery really is thriving, teeming with fish and even the odd turtle. 

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Subsix restaurant

With a resort refresh taking place this year, which will see new-look overwater and beach villas, public spaces and restaurant areas, Niyama is so much more than nature’s playground. It’s paradise, whether you want to play or chill – or both. 

Prices for two adults per night on a half-board basis in low season start from $1,160 in a water pool villa and $1,080 in a beach pool villa, including taxes.

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