Similar to Bora Bora, the Seychelles and the Canary Islands, the Maldives is a far-flung island destination whose unique topography may be instantly recognizable in photographs. But when it comes to pinpointing its location on a map, even the most seasoned travelers may find themselves flummoxed. Honey where is that again? The Leeward Antilles? Somewhere near Fiji?

The Maldives, an atoll nation of 1,190 coral islands with a population of close to 400,000 people inhabiting around 200 of them is, in fact, smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The smallest Asian nation in both size and population, its closest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka at about 373 miles (600 kilometers) north and 466 miles (750 kilometers) northeast, respectively.

Defined by diverse marine ecosystems and an average ground level of only 4 feet 11 inches above sea level — it’s the lowest-lying nation on Earth — the Maldives is a place where Mother Nature has graced us with some of her most stunning magic. But it’s also one where her wrath can be devastating, as the tsunami resulting from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake proved. And because of rising sea levels caused by global warming, it’s a place that may not be around for much longer. If sea levels rise three feet, which they are predicted to by 2100, much of the country would become uninhabitable.

The Maldives’ tourism industry has rebounded remarkably in the years following the Indian Ocean earthquake, and a mass exodus of climate refugees isn’t quite yet in the works. President Mohamed Nasheed, however, has set up a sovereign wealth fund to help the entire nation relocate to higher ground, possibly to India, Sri Lanka or Australia, when the time does come. The purchase of a new homeland will be funded by the approximately 500,000 annual tourists that visit the country … talk about giving a whole new spin to the term “environmental tourism.” So if you can stomach the plane ride (it’s about a 19-hour trip from New York via London to the capital city of Malé), and like your natural beauty with an ample dose of luxury, now is the time to visit this environmentally precarious wonderland. The clock is ticking.

Your own private atoll

It’s pretty much impossible to rough it in the Maldives. The country is renowned for its exclusive, uber-luxe resorts — there’s about 80 of them — situated on their own private islands surrounded by unspoiled white sand beaches and warm turquoise waters, making them ideal for both well-heeled honeymooners and aquatic adventurers. The Four Seasons has a strong presence in the Maldives with two resorts, the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru and the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Hurraa, and the only “floating” Four Seasons in the world, The Four Seasons Explorer, a tricked-out, 128-foot catamaran that island-hops between the two resorts. 

Predictably, visitors will find posh trappings (thatched roof beach villas with private swimming pools, anyone?) and amenities galore at the Four Seasons Resorts, but an unwavering commitment to preserving the endangered island paradise caters to those looking to experience more than your standard blissed-out pamper-fest.

Led by Guy Stevens, a staff of snorkel-ready marine biologists is on hand to educate guests on the islands’ unmatched marine diversity (and the environmental threats facing them) through presentations at a Marine Discovery Centre and, for the adventurous, during interactive underwater excursions. Inspired by Maldivian President Nasheed’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2020 (more on this, below), the resorts have also instituted environmental programs including the Coral Tray Propagation Project, the Sea Turtle Nesting Project, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, and the Green Fund, a reserve that supports the resorts’ conservation and marine research endeavors.

Singapore-based Banyan Hotels and Resorts, a company with four resorts in the Maldives under the Banyan Tree and Angsana brands, also takes conservation to heart, having won the 2009 Seed Award from EC3 Global, a sustainable tourism group.

Dive on in 

The Maldives is destination numero uno for serious divers, snorkellers, swimmers and underwater adventurers looking to come face to face with thousands of species of tropical fish — the clownfish, lionfish, parrotfish, stingray and whale shark are just a few — dolphins, sea turtles and other forms of marine life thriving among the country’s complex system of fragile coral reefs. An abrupt spike in water temperature resulting from the 1998 El Niño bleached and killed more than 90 percent of the country’s coral reefs, but since then the reefs have been nursed back to health thanks in part to coral regrowing initiatives.

Are you a claustrophobic suffering from ichthyophobia? The ocean is pretty hard to avoid in the Maldives and most recreational activities that don’t take place under the water take place on top of it or around it: windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, surfing and fishing. And then there’s golf. When visitors start to prune up after too time spent in the water, many choose to get their “M” on in Malé by taking in the vibrant, culturally rich capital city’s markets, museums, monuments and mosques. And be sure to munch on hedhikaa, a Maldivian deep-fried fish snack. Just remember that since the Maldives is an Islamic country, you should leave your stash of pork, porno and booze at your resort (where anything goes) before venturing out into Malé or other local areas.

A plan of attack

The Four Seasons isn’t the only entity in the Maldives with a progressive environmental mission. The government itself, led by President Nasheed, the first Maldivian president to be elected by a multi-party democracy, is taking steps to fight global warming given the dire, direct effect that it has on the country. In an ambitious effort to become the first completely carbon neutral country within just a decade, there are plans to erect 155 wind turbines, install rooftop solar arrays throughout the country and build a coconut husk-burning biomass plant. Additionally, all fossil fuel-powered boats and cars in the country would be phased out and replaced by electric versions. To drive the point home, Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting with 14 scuba gear-clad Maldivian cabinet ministers in October 2009.

Said Nasheed upon unveiling his aggressive plan of attack in 2009: “Climate change is a global emergency. The world is in danger of going into cardiac arrest, yet we behave as if we've caught a common cold. Today, the Maldives has announced plans to become the world's most eco-friendly country. I can only hope other nations follow suit.”

On the topic of attacks, shark lovers take note: In July 2010, the Maldivian government announced that shark fishing would be outlawed in the territorial waters off the nation and that the export of sharks fins would be banned. Only one other nation offers blanket protection to its shark residents: the tiny Micronesian state of Palau.

Into the future

Although 2100, the year by which scientists believe that the Maldives could disappear underwater, isn’t exactly around the corner, big change is afoot in this tiny tropical paradise. Thanks in part to a climate change-battling new president and a resilient, nature-based tourism industry centered around eco-proactive resorts like the Four Seasons, the Maldives won’t go down without a fight. Perhaps it’s time to book those ringside seats. Just be sure you can find it on a map first …

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.