Editor's note: This is the first story in a travel series featuring the Maldives, Dubai, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
I once printed a picture of one of those over-water bungalows only found at resorts in the South Pacific or the Indian Ocean and pinned it to the wall in my office. It was a picture I could gaze at from time to time that could immediately take me to that perfect place, far away from the stresses in life or at work.
In May, that picture became a reality - and the lavish beauty I experienced while there trumped my wildest expectations.
My boyfriend, Ryan, and I booked flights to the Maldives, an Indian Ocean nation made up of 1,190 small coral islands, about 100 of which are resort islands.
When we arrived, we were stunned - not because it looks any different than it should or than we expected but because it's so beautiful that we almost couldn't believe it exists.
It's surreal because it's fabled and for good reason. This is a place where honeymooners go, where the rich and famous go on holiday, where couples fall in love with each other all over again.
The Maldives is made up of atolls, which are coral islands that encircle lagoons. The climate is warm, as the country is just north of the equator, and tropical. The hundreds of islands are no more than 6 feet above sea level, covering almost 56,000 square miles.
Traveling there from the United States isn't easy - perhaps that's why so many people looked at us puzzled when we told them we had just been there.
The Maldives? Where is that?
And the people who could likely point to it on a map would react in awe because we had gone there, as if Americans couldn't ever possibly go to the Maldives and that our doing so had broken some unspoken law about where we're allowed or expected to travel.
Flying from Denver to the Indian Ocean takes time, patience and maybe even a couple of sleeping aids (get a prescription from a travel doctor, or take advantage of free cocktails aboard international flights). It's two hours to Los Angeles, where you can then board Emirates Airlines' 16-hour nonstop to Dubai. After a layover in Dubai, which we chose to extend to four days (more on that experience in an upcoming article), then it's just more than four hours to the Maldives capital of Male. All in all, that's about 20 hours in the air, not including stops.
From there, depending on which island you're heading to, you'll need to board a seaplane and fly for anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour. To get to Kuramathi Island, where we stayed, the seaplane took just 15 minutes. From the seaplane, which is flown by barefoot pilots wearing shorts - an appropriate touch - you can see the beauty of the coral islands surrounded by turquoise waters so clear you can practically snorkel from the air.
The islands aren't solely known for the beaches and water, though - there are also incredible lush landscapes, and this is especially true on Kuramathi Island.
When you arrive, the first thing you notice isn't the pristine, white-sand beaches that are everywhere. It's the tropical jungle that splatters an already gorgeous canvas with breathtaking trees, plants and flowers. You can get lost in this flourishing forest - the island feels like a botanical garden, one stocked with bats, hermit crabs, banyan trees and those over-water villas that I had been dreaming about for years.
Any American adventurous enough to take their beach vacation somewhere outside of our go-to destinations such as Mexico, Florida, Hawaii or Costa Rica can do it with just a little extra time and money. The reward is beyond worth it.
It's hard to imagine staying in another type of room at Kuramathi, or any other Maldivian island, although beach and garden villas appeared lovely, as well.
I think it's because we traveled all this way that we wanted to sleep on top of the ocean and enjoy every second of being there. At night, when the stars shine brighter than they do during the darkest nights in Vail, we could see the glimmer bounce off the sea and the sound of nothing more than a few small waves splashing beneath. There's nothing like it.
You could sit out there for hours - and we did - listening to it. Just total peace, and if you're lucky enough to catch it during or near a full moon, the light is just enough so that you can see where you are - in this picturesque paradise halfway around the world, where nothing, not even updating your Facebook status to brag to your friends about where you are, matters.
Kuramathi is an island with it all, too. Those looking for a pampered holiday can visit the spa - which sits on the beach so you can hear the sound of the ocean as you enjoy your spa treatments - or any one of the island's restaurants (there are nine). You can relax on the beach while sipping on a cocktail from the resort's extensive drink list, or you can choose ultimate privacy by sunbathing or snorkeling right at your villa.
Foodies will find this island more than adequate, too. Basic all-inclusive packages include three buffet meals per day, offering food that spans cuisine from Japan to Europe to Russia. The Sri Lankan and Maldivian food, however, was by far the most sensational.
For the more adventurous and active traveler, Kuramathi has a watersports shop where you can go windsurfing or stand-up paddleboarding. There are water kayaks available, too, and private fishing excursions.
Snorkeling trips, either with a group or private, offer trips out to nearby reefs - although the "house reef" surrounding the island is accessible by a short swim from the villas. It was the house reef where we saw some of the most colorful fish, as well as black tip reef sharks, sea turtles and stingrays.
The scuba experience is once in a lifetime, too. The Rasdhoo Atoll Divers, located on the island, offer everything from diving courses to certification to expert dives. They go out of their way to make you feel comfortable - Ryan's first dive since getting certified at Beaver Divers was here, and the instructors were there for him every step of the way.
Regardless of what kind of traveler and vacationer you are, Kuramathi - and the Maldives in general - will blow your mind in terms of what's possible in an island vacation.
Paradise has been found - it's sitting right there in the Indian Ocean.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.