Island Hopping by Seaplane in the Maldives

For many holidaymakers, emerging from the plane and walking out of the airport is a characteristic moment, marking the time when you're done travelling and you can start experiencing. However, in a destination with geography as unique as the Maldives, your arrival at the international hub of Malé is just the first step in a more varied journey; one which ends when you step onto a sun-soaked wooden jetty extending into a calm, breezy lagoon at your chosen resort.

Some of the many hundreds of tourist islands are close enough to Malé that a 30-minute speedboat trip is enough to get you there. Others may even use a traditional Dhoni fishing vessel, whose burbling diesel engine propels you across the waves at a far more relaxed pace. Plenty more, though, are spread out among completely separate atolls perhaps another hundred kilometres distant - in this case, the only reasonable option is to board another plane and travel further by air.

The island nation does have a growing network of domestic airports, with more than five new ones popping up in the last decade alone. Historically though, the enormous extent of the deep ocean covering the country has forced the creation of one of the world's largest seaplane fleets. The machine of choice for these water-going air taxi services has always been the DeHavilland Twin Otter; a robust and very capable aircraft, designed in the 1960s in Canada and still deployed across the world today. It flies everywhere from vacant deserts to frozen mountains, and even acts as a shuttle to the sparse network of science outposts in the Antarctic.

A resort transfer on the Maldivian Twin Otters often comes as part of the package for more far-flung islands. In October 2021, I boarded my own seaplane flight to the Heritance Aarah resort in the north-western Raa Atoll, as part of a long-awaited family trip. We collected our bags from the airport carousel, completed a brief immigration check and then re-weighed all our luggage at the austere Trans Maldivian Airways check-in desk. A short bus ride later, we were shown to a compact little side lounge catering specifically to the guests of our island. The room was dimly lit with a hushed atmosphere, and the welcoming blast of chilly air upon opening the doors did wonders to offset the heat of a mid-day arrival in the tropics. The attendant confirmed our flight details; we had a short wait of around half an hour to recharge and make use of the complementary mini-fridge in the corner of the room, after which we were escorted back outside into the afternoon sun to embark on our seaplane adventure...

The boarding area is all over-water, consisting of long wooden pontoons reaching out into a harbour on the eastern edge of Malé airport. It has the bustling feel of a busy bus station or taxi rank, with planes lined up next to piles of suitcases and the constant whir of Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines drowning out the lapping waters. Without someone to guide us in the right direction, finding the correct plane would be near impossible as they are constantly coming and going on their lively island hopping schedules.

There are no boarding gates or access steps. You and your fellow passengers simply form a queue under the wing with your remaining pieces of cabin baggage, and one by one you're invited to 'mind your head' as you step up into the narrow aisle and filter towards the open cockpit. There's also no system of designated seats, but that's not much of a problem with only about twelve to choose from! I end up pushing forward to a perch on the front-most row, which gives me a clear view out of the right hand side while also allowing me to peek up at the captain's flight instruments. If I lean forward enough, I can even grab a limited view through the front windows and over the plane's elongated nose.

There isn't much in the way of pretence at Trans Maldivian. Just minutes after I click my lap belt shut and squeeze my knees up against the forward bulkhead, the single rear door swings shut and the crew climb in through the front. A switch is flipped, bringing the plane's electrics to life - including a pair of tired-looking metal fans fixed above our heads at the front of the cabin. Twin Otters are unpressurised, meaning that air conditioning would be a costly optional extra, adding unnecessary weight to an aircraft whose design mantra is no-nonsense utility. No worries though; our cruising altitude should cool the outside air to somewhere in the low twenties.

The crew whizz through the starting checks, and within another minute the engines are spooling into life - first the left, then the right. My forward window is almost in line with the propeller, which is now just a black and white blur cutting through the air a few inches beyond the plexiglass. The captain reaches up to the roof-mounted throttle levers, and using an expert balance of forward and reverse thrust coupled with the gentle southerly wind, he turns us on the spot and we start to drift away from the pier.

Taxiing out to the 'runway' feels like a boat ride more than anything else. We push forward at a steady pace, gently rolling over the latent swells as the plane's bulky floats cut a path across the water. There are two or three other aircraft ahead of us in the take-off queue, so we wait our turn - the pilots twisting the throttle levers a little to the left or right to ensure we don't drift too far on the breeze. Bending down to look out through the porthole, I get a clear view of the other Twin Otters powering up their engines to take-off speed, leaving a brief curtain of white ocean spray in their wake as they skim their way up into the sky and begin climbing.

It isn't long before it's our turn. The crew rattle off a few more pre-departure checks and ease us round to the right, ensuring that we're facing into the wind for our take-off run. The twin power levers are then pushed forward in unison, and the noise level in the cabin quickly rises to a heavy droning hum as the engines are finally let loose. Speed builds rapidly and the floats are soon creating foamy white bow waves as they go from simply supporting the plane's weight to plowing through the sea like speedboats. Ten seconds later, and a slight tilt of the control column encourages the nose to rise just a few degrees higher, letting the wings take our full weight as we soar into the sky. The transition from sea vessel to flying machine is actually quite an elegant one, and as soon as we leave the water we're climbing at an impressive rate - although thanks to the smooth outside air it really feels pleasant and leisurely.

Our route to Heritance Aarah requires a turn to the north, and will take us away from the urban hub of Malé and out across a mix of islands in the local atoll, before we cross a short open stretch of the Indian Ocean and eventually come down into the next string of islands where our resort is nestled. It doesn't take us long to clear the airport. The incongruous stretch of asphalt where our British Airways Boeing dropped us off a few hours earlier is soon just another brightly coloured blotch against the deep, dark blue of the sea. The separate island housing the city of Malé can be seen briefly under the right wing, surrounded by the frothy wakes of tiny speedboats and the larger, more lumbering hulls of wooden Dhonis and anchored cargo ships. Flecks of seawater catch the light as they continue to fall from the plane's floats, which are now just dead weight drooping down below the fuselage. We continue upwards, disappearing briefly into scattered fluffy cumulus clouds and raising our voices above the persistent engine noise as we share in the novelty of the sights below us.

We cruise at 4500 feet; high enough to escape the bumps of any low-level thermals but still close enough that I can make out groups of tiny people silhouetted against the bright white beaches bordering the islands. The sun is muted by a thin blanket of high-altitude cloud, but the colours below us are still stunning in their contrast, with abrupt boundaries between the dusky blue of the fathomless Indian Ocean and the neon turquoise of shallower lagoons and thilas. Some islands are still totally empty, comprising dense clusters of green vegetation at the centre surrounded by a perfectly smooth halo of sunlit sand. Others barely peek above the surface of the water, and exist as ever-shifting sandbars at the mercy of the seasonal tides and currents. The resort islands are very easy to pick out thanks to the curving strings of over-water villas snaking from the sand into the aquamarine shallows, and the occasional swimming pool or palm-thatched hut roof jutting through the greenery. Despite the rapid pace of development in the Maldives, the view from above has stayed pretty much unspoiled thanks to tasteful architecture which uses local materials and indigenous designs to fit in nicely with nature rather than conquer it.

The pilots have now kicked off their flip-flops, and their bare feet push every so often on the chunky metal rudder pedals to make tiny adjustments to our course. We're flying north by north-west on a compass heading of about 340 degrees. The sizeable fleet of seaplanes ferries over a million passengers each year to around 80 resorts, meaning you're never far from another aircraft. In fact, we have a companion alongside us right now. It appears as a white spot on the up-front navigation screen, and when I squeeze myself lower into my seat, I see the clean red and white paintwork standing out brightly against the background sky underneath our starboard engine. It's also pretty common for a single flight to stop off at two or three resorts before starting it's journey back to Malé. This does mean that you may end up with a longer trip, but the upside is that you can catch a peek at different islands you may never otherwise visit.

Thankfully the air is much cooler up here. We're pushing along at 125 knots with the wind on our side, and apart from a few seconds of turbulence from isolated air pockets we've had a silky smooth ride. Dark streaks of coral can be seen punctuating the otherwise soft-looking surroundings of the islands. Perhaps if we were a bit lower, we'd even see the bulbous outlines of large stingrays or maybe the odd turtle that's strayed away from the reef. The sea looks tranquil and glassy from this vantage point. The only things disturbing the blank blue canvas are the intermittent streaks of speedboats and transport cruisers channelling their way back and forth between the islands and atolls.

We've passed over enough resorts by this point that I can even start to categorise them by their individual personalities. First-time visitors can find it hard to pick from the hundreds on offer, and it can be tempting to choose based simply on the mundane metrics of price and proximity. To get the most out of your trip though, you should consider other factors like the swimming distance from beach to reef, the availability of rooms in different settings both on land and over the water, and even the location of different parts of the island's infrastructure such as sea walls or piers and jetties which might obstruct your view. Even the most exclusive islands may have shortcomings in certain areas, so focussing on what's really important to you can greatly boost your experience even if you're holidaying on a budget.

It's now over half an hour since we took off, and the pitch of the engine noise slowly drops down as we start to sink back towards the surface from our cruise level. We're crossing over the southern boundary of the Raa Atoll, and the scenery outside my window starts to get closer and closer. Scanning the little chunks of land below, I can finally identify Aarah, my destination, as we approach from the south and complete a full circle around it slipping below 1000 feet as we go. The crew feather the propellers to slow us down to a more relaxed speed, and the wing flaps begin to drop as we turn final. The beauty of travelling by seaplane, especially over the open ocean like this, is that you aren't constrained by linear stretches of tarmac or grass marking out your landing strip. It's always possible to come in without needing to compensate for blustery crosswinds, and provided you're not touching down with the nose facing the beach, running out of runway is never going to be a problem.

The instant when we make contact with the water is pretty hard to mark, with no bump or thud from the pointed hulls of the floats as they clash with the few small wavelets on the surface. Looking out through the window, the sea is being flung aside in front of us where our weight quickly settles back onto the landing gear, and a second later the propellers are placed into reverse thrust and we bleed off the rest of our momentum until we're sliding forward at walking pace. The island's arrival jetty is vacant and ready to receive us as we once again become a boat, slipping past a rocky sea wall and turning in place so that our stern faces the beach. With the engines still thrumming against the light current, the access hatch at the back is flung open and the third crew member expertly jumps down onto the left float, securing us to the dock with a deftly tied knot.

Just like that, we have arrived! All that's left now is to unclip our belts, form a haphazard queue in the cramped aisle, and step outside one by one into the welcoming tropical sea air. The Twin Otter is by no means the most elegant or luxurious way to travel, but equally it doesn't need to be anything more than what it is. Island hopping by air is such a memorable little adventure that I myself can still vividly recall the same sights and sensations from earlier Maldives trips, way back in my childhood. I suppose I was too young then to really grasp what a privilege it is to come so far and spend time in wonderful places like this, but it did wonders to spark my curiosity and ambition for seeking out what the world has to offer.

Time hasn't really touched the way things work here, perhaps due to the very limited land space available for humans to engineer and re-shape to suit their needs. Yes, the resorts have become blanketed with the comforts of the modern world such as on-demand WiFi, climate-controlled rooms and imported western food/drink, but people still come from afar seeking the same sights and sensations that they did when the first tourists checked in nearly fifty years ago. The pioneering magic is still here, and travelling domestically in the Maldives is a perfect example of how the journey can be as enthralling as the destination.