The rumble of the anchor chain tumbling to the ocean floor announces the arrival of the Atoll Explorer at yet another idyllic island. The view is exquisite; sun dappling a lagoon the colour of translucent turquoise while waves gently lap at a smooth, palm-fringed beach of golden sand.
There are 990 uninhabited islands in the Maldives archipelago, a garland of 26 natural atolls draped across 822 kilometres of the equator, southwest of Sri Lanka. About 200 islands are inhabited while a further 100 have been turned into resorts.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS on Monday, when a dhoni (a small motorised boat) collects us from Male International Airport in the Maldivian capital and transports us to the Atoll Explorer, anchored off the Kurumba resort, just 20 minutes away.
It may not be a pretty boat - it was an oil-rig supply ship that was converted into a cruise ship in 1996 - but the Atoll Explorer whisks visitors to stunning and little-known parts of the Maldives. It carries 40 passengers, in eight double cabins with private balconies and 12 twin cabins with large picture windows in place of portholes. There are sundecks fore and aft linked by an open deck that's been converted into a restaurant. The party spirit among the passengers - a mix of young and old, divers and non-divers - is encouraged by a lack of formality: the dress code is shorts by day and casual clothing by night.
The vessel operates on two itineraries, on alternate weeks. One delves deep into the South Ari atoll, anchoring off a different deserted island every day so passengers can snorkel, swim and dive. The other itinerary, the one we've chosen, includes visits to resorts as well as to Rasdhoo, a village island.
At 8am on Tuesday, the ship weighs anchor and, while we eat breakfast, lazily cruises to the small resort island of Giravaru. Here, beginners have their first scuba-diving lesson in shallow waters while others snorkel.
The Atoll Explorer is one of 80 hotel ships that cruise the Maldives. Unlike the smaller vessels, which carry up to 12 passengers, this ship appeals to those keen on good living rather than good diving and all meals, soft drinks, beers, house wine and selected cocktails and spirits are included in the price of the package.
The ship cruises for a couple of hours every morning before anchoring in the calm waters of a deserted coral island for the rest of the day. Some passengers sign up for diving but others are content to laze in on-deck jacuzzis, sunbathe on deserted beaches or relax in their cabin.
The cabins are compact and lack drawer space but each boasts a clothes cabinet, lots of hooks and mirrors, air-conditioning and a bathroom with a hot shower. The ship is followed everywhere by the dhoni, which is used for transfers and to take divers to prime dive spots.
One night we join a fishing expedition, sitting on the dhoni with baited line dangling over the side. Everyone lands something - and much of the catch turns up the next night at the buffet. All meals on board are served buffet style with fish and fresh vegetables (flown in weekly from Sri Lanka) always an option.
After having spent the day doing nothing on Meerufenfushi, we sail to the uninhabited island of Dhiggiri, for a barbeque dinner on the beach.
On another evening, the 27-strong Maldivian crew sit down to pound drums on deck for a display of a traditional island dance, bodu beru.
On Sunday, the ship returns to Kurumba, so passengers may explore Male. A four-piece band comes on board for an evening farewell party - and all too soon the cruise is at an end.