Noonu Atoll has only recently been opened for tourism, and is the location of the newest tourist island developments - including some of the most luxurious island resorts in the Maldives. The lush tropical islands, white sugar-sand beaches and colourful coral reefs of the region are in pristine condition, and Noonu Atoll has also become a popular resort destination for scuba divers keen to experience several renowned Maldivian dive sites that previously could only be visited by taking a cruise on a live-aboard diving boat.
Noonu Atoll - also known by its administrative name of Southern Miladhunmadulu Atoll - lies about 110 miles north of the capital Male. There are more than 70 islands in the atoll, and only 13 have local villages or small towns. Just two islands have been developed as exclusive luxury resorts, two more are opening soon, and the rest of the islands are uninhabited. Guests at the resort islands can reach many of the uninhabited islands in a traditional dhoni boat, for romantic or family picnic on an idyllic and secluded tropical beach, or to go snorkelling on unspoiled coral reefs teeming with colourful fish.
The transfers to the resorts from the international airport at Male are usually done by in a short seaplane trip arranged by the resort - a scenic 45-minute flight low over hundreds of lush tropical islands and the iridescent blue sea, before the thrill of landing on the water near the resort. Each resort in the Maldives enjoys the exclusive use of its own island, and offers a range of accommodation options and recreational facilities for guests. The new resorts in Noonu Atoll are all very high-end developments, including the Hilton Maldives resort on Irufushi island and the upcoming Mandarin Oriental Maldives on Maavelavuru Island. The Hilton Iru Fishu resort features water villas built out over the circular lagoon, with glass-panelled floors that let guests enjoy the living colours of the corals and fish beneath their rooms. The resort also has good facilities for families on holiday with children, including a kids activity club and children's menus in the many restaurants and bars on the island. The chic and intimate Zitahli resort on Funafaru Island is a five-star eco-styled resort with just 50 villas, built out over the water and the amid the palms and landscaped tropical gardens beside the beach. The Mandarin Oriental resort is not yet open (in 2011), but is certain to establish itself as a top-end resort destination and haven for international celebrities, with four expansive luxury presidential suites that feature their own private swimming pools and wine cellar.
Until recently only scuba-divers on live-aboard dive cruises could visit Noonu Atoll, and so the best dive sites are unspoiled and rarely visited. The most renowned sites include Christmas Tree Rock, a coral pinnacle (thila) surrounded by ledges populated by reef sharks, rays, tuna and snapper. At Orimas Thila, divers can get close with eagle rays and watch packs of grey reef sharks hunting packs above the corals.