A Taste for Luxury: Chartering a Fleet of Azimuts in the Maldives

The Sultans Way 007 and 001 are the first locally based deluxe motoryachts available for crewed charters in the Maldives.

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There's no way I can be certain (at least not without ending up on YouTube), but I think this is how it might feel to wade into a hot fudge sundae.

I am about an hour and a half's plane ride southwest of Sri Lanka, in the 540-mile-long Indian Ocean stretch that's home to the hundreds of atolls known as the Maldives. On a map, I'm a quarter-inch north of the equator. It is 10 o'clock in the morning, and it is well past 90 degrees.

The soles of my feet are sizzling as I step from the blazing sand into the lapping surf. The water is so warm that I actually look around for steam. After a few more steps, all but my neck and head are submerged. Still, the surface feels as thick as chocolate sauce, but my legs are being treated to a refreshing coolness not unlike that of vanilla ice cream on a summer's day. Like I said, a hot fudge sundae- with my quickly sunburnt noggin as the cherry on top.

What amazes me most about this analogy is that I stood in the water for about 10 minutes contemplating it. The very morning after more than 24 hours of back-crunching travel to get to this place from New York, I was that calm-because the Maldives are that calm. The water is pancake flat. The people move and speak with slowness and ease. Even the rain showers, when they blissfully come, drizzle from the clouds instead of pounding down.

It's just the sort of place I see in my mind when I think about ultimate charter destinations.

Ironically, though, I have come here to see what are apparently the first Maldives-based yachts for crewed charter. Camper & Nicholsons International recently began promoting the Azimut 103S called The Sultans Way 007 and the Leonardo 98 called The Sultans Way 001, both owned by a local travel entrepreneur. Until now, finding a crewed motoryacht here has meant playing catch-as-catch-can with international boats moving through for owner use. With The Sultans Way motoryachts, Camper & Nicholsons is offering nearly year-round access to charters in a destination that seems absolutely tailored by nature for them.

The Maldives are not technically islands in the sense that most of us know. They are atolls, which are coral islands that encircle lagoons. As Charles Darwin postulated in the 1800s, atolls are formed by coral that grows around the tops of volcanoes-and that continues to grow as the seafloor shifts and the volcanoes recede. What's left on the surface is a ring of coral surrounding a lagoon, and maybe a patch of land.

"When you see the country from above," as one Sultans Way crew member put it, "it looks like eggs all sunny-side up. The land is the yolks."

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Developers have used a good number of these yolks in a recipe for "private-island" resorts, if only because many of the land patches are so small they can't support any more development, including megayacht marinas. That lack of dockage, in addition to laws and taxes that make long-term stays challenging for international yachts, is why luxury crewed charter is only now starting to arise in the Maldives.

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The hub of the luxury travel infrastructure is North Malé atoll, where the international airport is located. You fly in, as I did, on a massive jet with a three-five-three seat configuration, and then disembark via a stairway as if you had just completed a six-passenger hopper flight in the Virgin Islands. Customs is a matter of a couple of desks, your luggage is on one of two carousels, and your shuttle boat is waiting no farther from the terminal than a Lincoln Town Car would be at any other airport in the world.

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Charter yachts enjoy the same ease of guest pickup as the resort shuttles, a fact I learned upon seeing The Sultans Way 007-literally the minute I stepped through the airport's doors. Unfortunately, because of a last-minute change of plans by the owner, I would not be able to tour the Maldives aboard this promised yacht, but within 24 hours I was aboard the same owner's day charter boat, an Azimut 68S called The Sultans Way 006.

The owner's ability to switch out yachts, along with having access to resort services and staff, is actually quite important. These islands are remote. As in real life, things sometimes happen.

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"In a worst-case scenario," Sultans Way local manager K.G. Hjalmarsson told me, "the guy who knows how to fix something is on another continent. This is not Europe. There's no MTU service facility a half-hour cruise away."

What is a half-hour cruise away is one of the most memorable environments I've encountered in a decade of covering the international charter industry. The Maldives atolls are shockingly flat. Some 80 percent of the entire nation stands less than three feet above mean high tide. Communications towers look like lighthouses. From our boat's cockpit, my sea-level views rarely changed unless clouds passed over the ocean's surface to create different shadows. It's pretty cruising, full of uninhabited islets and tropical trees, but outside of the resort restaurants, spas, and swimming pools, the real action of the Maldives is underwater.

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Beate Schmidt, a German master scuba trainer from the yacht owner's resort, met me aboard The Sultans Way 006 and helped me prep for a giant-stride entry right from the swim platform above the wreck of the Hembadhoo, a small cargo boat that was sunk 20 years ago to create an artificial reef. I paused before I descended and removed my mask to wipe my eyes, shocked that I could see fish so clearly before the excursion had begun. Our visibility, even after we had dived some 75 feet, remained about 100 feet into the deep blue.

Massive schools of baitfish encircled me. The wreck was a dense kaleidoscope of coral, grouper, and clownfish. Sea anemone grew up like rosy-haired Chia Pets. The water was so clear that I not only saw fish pooping, but I could tell you whether they were getting enough fiber in their diets.

"It's one of my favorite dive sites," Schmidt told me after we made the easy climb up the Azimut's swim ladder. "There are a lot of things coming together, many, many things. Other sites are more about big game, like whale sharks. The thing about these boats that I like is that we can drive quickly from here to there, so you can sample all the best dive sites. We are very lucky with these boats."

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My favorite part of my journey to the Maldives was seeing the sheer potential the place has for crewed charter. Itineraries can blend world-class resorts with high-speed boats, scuba diving with spa treatments, and onboard delicacies with serious relaxation. Men like Abdulla and Waidyaratne (see "Local Knowledge, International Skills," opposite) can show charter guests the best of the local culture in a way that reflects their own international experiences. The Sultans Way boats are positioned to set a standard for locally based luxury charters that has never before been achieved.

I'm already salivating for my next taste of the place.

__The Sultans Way 007_ takes eight guests at a lowest weekly base rate of 84,000. The Sultans Way 001 takes eight guests at a lowest weekly base rate of 73,500._

Camper & Nicholsons International, (954) 524-4250; **www.camperandnicholsons.com**