Best of the Maldives: Drench Sink – Shangri-La Villingili

Shangri-La Villingili - drench sink

What I get to uncover on my Maldives tours are the smaller details that really give a resort distinction. While the resort PR departments are all keen to promote their latest Michelin star chef or butler concierge service, these smaller touches are just as likely to impress the guest with a bit of “wow” factor. As any designer will appreciate, it’s the fixtures and fittings which set a property apart.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then Shangri-La Villingili’s drench sinks get that highest praise. Lori and I have just sold our house and we are about to embark on building our next dream home. Of all the creative and extravagant features we have found in the luxurious world of the Maldives resorts, the one I am going to steal for our next house is Villingili’s sinks.

Drench showers are starting to make their way to the top resorts. They are the latest in the evolution of a sybaritic soaking that started with the introduction of power massage showers and then moved onto rain showers. I’ve seen several of the drench showers, but Villingili was the first drench sink I’ve come across. There is something deliciously sensual about a wafer thin sheet of water cascading silkily over your hands. An unsung water feature in the land of exceptional water spectacles.

Best of the Maldives: Fresh Crisps – Equator Village

Equator Village - fresh crisps

Some people (and resorts) think that the big, prominent, showy parts of the property are what define its “star quality (eg. 4-star, 5-star, super 5-star+). The welcome jetty, the extravagant ingredients on the menu, the ubiquitous service. But there are a number of small acid-tests which distinguish the quality of the resort just as much. Three of our favourites are…

· Pina Colada Test – This drink is perhaps the definitive tropical cocktail. It is just complicated enough in its recipe that it’s quality and style varies enormously from resort to resort. In my annual tour report on the Maldives Trip Advisor Forum, a short one sentence assessment of the pina colada (I have one at every resort) speaks volumes about the resort’s attention to detail and care for such an iconic part of the sunny holiday experience.

· Beach Furniture – For starters, plastic versus wood is what separates the 4-stars from the 5-stars. Don’t even think about calling yourself a 5-star if you are going to put out plastic furniture. And the super 5-star+ resorts go a step further special design, cushioning or creative placement (like in the pool).

· Cocktail Snacks – The basic here is the crisps/potato chips and nuts which is typical 4-star fare. The 5-stars will go for olives and maybe some flavoured snacks like a Bombay Mix. And the super 5-star+ resorts will provide specially prepared gourmet nibbles.

It was given this context that we were so pleasantly surprised by one of the most more-ish pool snacks ever served to us in the Maldives was at what is probably the lowest cost, full-fledged resort in the Maldives – Equator Village. They make freshly cooked potato chips. And they are delicious. Crispy and hot. Admittedly, they are not complimentary (they cost $5), but it is money worth spending for an accompaniment to your sundowner cocktail.

Best resort for Gary Lineker!

Best of the Maldives: Lagoon Coral Garden – Canareef

Canareef - snorkeling 1

The Maldives lagoons. There aquamarine pools are perhaps the feature that most defines the distinctive Maldives topology from above. And yet for many Maldives aficionados and avid snorkelers, they often dismissed and disregarded. The “main event” for the Maldives’ world leading snorkelling is the ‘house reef drop off’. Where the coral shallows plummet into the deep blue ornamented with a living collage of vibrant sealife.

Lori and I often feel these unsung littoral shoals are underappreciated. On our first visit, we knew nothing about the drama of the house reef and spent our first days happily snorkelling among the scattered coral croppings in two-foot deep water. We were nonetheless still mesmerized by the schools of tropical fish darting here and there. Since that time, we have had some very fine snorkels in lagoons.

I long ago added a basic ‘house reef’ rating to the resort Profiles, but a couple years ago I thought of adding a ‘Lagoon Rating’. I didn’t have enough information to do a good job of it and, as I’ve mentioned, there’s not a lot of call for lagoon info. But I have seen many lagoons in my 70+ Maldives resort visits and snorkelled most of them, and I have been struck by a number of them. For example, Four Season Kuda Huraa’s with its early and ambitious reefscaping initiative stands out for example. But I have to call out Canareef’s “Coral Garden” as very possibly the best ‘house lagoon’ in the Maldives.

While lagoon snorkels are more sedate and less eventful affairs, our snorkel of their Coral Garden was one of the most exciting underwater excursions of the trip. First you are struck by the great variety of coral. Most of it in very good health. One of the best parts is the crewcut forests of staghorn coral tickling the underside of the ocean top. They weave in contorted shapes like a shrubbery maze in the garden of a stately home that you can get lost in roaming through the sandy channels.

And this water wonderland extends for acres and acres. In fact, it gets a bit spooky to swim half a kilometre offshore even if the depth is still chest high. The shallow depth makes the Coral Garden an attractive option for snorkelling novices especially at low tide. If you have any difficulties, you can just stand up (as long as you ONLY stand on the sand, not the coral, but there is plenty of sand around). Even though it is sheltered and shallow, always take every precaution when snorkelling especially if you are less experienced.

Many resorts have started adding a number of creative touches to give their lagoons more allure. Despite its abundance of natural blessings in the lagoon department, Canareef is not resting on its laurels. They are in the process of building a special overwater bar to support the snorkelling. You can get gear there and have a post-snorkel drink while sharing all your snorkel spotting tales.

Never have I seen so much marine life in such little water.

 

Canareef - snorkeling 3
Lori venturing out into Canareef’s Coral Garden

Canareef - snorkeling 2

Best of the Maldives: Value Glass Floor – Embudu

Embudu - glass floor

The heart of any Maldives trip is the unworldly seascape and resorts do everything to bring with water wonderland front and centre – snorkelling, glass bottom boats, decks overlooking. One of the hot features at the glitziest water villas is the glass floor. A portal to this maritime magic even when you are sequestered inside. But you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy this fancy foot-level fenestella. The value priced Embudu resort sports lovely versions in their Water Bunglows. And there is plenty to see. We watched a couple of puppy reef sharks and a baby stingray during our short stay.  The most affordable glass floor water villa in the Maldives.

And Yet Still More Haven’t Seen Yet – Part 7

Fish hanging seat

After 70+ resorts and nearly two decades of touring the Maldives, you would think that I had seen it all about now. And yet in my web and other worldly wanderings, I’ve still come across another couple dozen curiosities that that are just crying out for the right home in the Maldives…

1. Fish Hanging Chairs – The newer properties are getting more arty and edgy, and the hanging swing seat has long been a staple for relaxing in the ocean breezes. [ABOVE]

2. Corner-Turning Sliding Glass Doors – It’s all about the scenery in the Maldives, and resorts are making villas more and more open to bring in the outdoors.
Sliding window walls

3. Shark SuitWhy put on a boring one-piece of the same geometric design that every Instagrammer in the world is wearing when you can wear this. Do just watch the shark…be the shark!
Shark swimsuit

4. Fashion Fins – Just because…
High heel fins

5. Bird’s Eye Perspective Resort Map – A few resorts (eg. Anantara, Baros), have 3D(ish) aerial resort maps. Four Seasons has a birds eye perspective, but more cartoonish, than photorealistic. I would like to see one of these throw backs proper Victorian vintage maps.
Birdseye map

6. Hand-held Underwater Propulsion – A number of resorts have seabobs, but these toned down versions seem more appropriate for gentler exploration (thanks Momo).

clip_image007

7. Underwater Drone – Another way to explore the reef without getting wet.
Underwater drone

8. Underwater GeoCache – A few geocaches have hit the resorts islands, but the obvious fun is undersea.
Underwater geocache

9. Underwater Yoga – I was going to do an April Fools post on this idea…until I found out it is no joke.
Underwater yoga

10. Pedal Board – Not a “paddle” board…”pedal” board.

11. Water Motorcycling – While the very notion will send the heebie-jeebies up the spine of most Maldives aficionados, in the spirit of “completeness” this couldn’t go without a mention. Not too much different to a jet ski in noise and disruption, really. And with a number of adrenalin sports hitting the Maldives (eg. power boarding) and a number of Red Bull events, it’s not so crazy a notion.

12. Aqua Lily Pad – On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, for the more sedentary…
Aqua lily pad

13. Activity Pinwheel – For the more indecisive. If even making a decision is too much of an effort on a Maldives holiday, I found this handy device in Copenhagen.
Activity pinwheel

14. Hemp Milk – Hot new thing in the epicenter of global coffee culture (Seattle).
Hemp milk

15. Paradise Island– Perfect toast to the “plot of sand with a palm tree” aesthetic that defines the Maldives.
Paradise Island cocktail

16. Ice Figurines – More fun with ice shapes.
Ice figurines

16. Chocolate Ball Reveal – For all of the glitzy gourmet presentations, nothing comes too close to this one.

17. Pineapple Lolly – Form and function in this fruit art.
Pineapple lolly

18. Yogurt Parfait Popsicles – And yet another option in the cold refreshment department with a bit of a healthy slant.
Forzen yogurt lolly

19. Cocktail Slushies – Or less healthy if you prefer…
Cocktail slushes

 

20. Ceiling Stars – While bed decorating gets more and more imaginative, how about a different surprise custom decoration for guests returning to their bedrooms? You turn out the lights and “Happy Honeymoon” is written in stars across the ceiling. Resorts can use light adhesive like blue tack to they are removable and reusable.
Ceiling stars

21. Wave Power Generator – Not so great for the inner atoll resorts that are shielded from such waves by the outer reefs, but an intriguing possibility for even more eco-sustainability in the outer atoll regions (thanks Paola).

22. Ocean-scraper – Okay, now I admit that we are getting silly.
Ocean-scraper

23. Underwater Police – Maybe this will deter the coral-standers and rogue fishermen (thanks again Paola).
Underwater police

24. Mermaid School – Not a “school of mermaids”, but “mermaid school”. I’ve had “swim with a mermaid”, but Sirenas Mediterranean Academy takes the aquatic dramatisation a step further.
Mermaid school

  

Maldives Tour 2016–Tour Review

Shangri-La Villingili - double rainbow

Another tour of paradise comes to a close.

After this tour I feel that I have hit a milestone of reaching nearly all of the “core” resorts and atolls.  Resorts that have either been around for a while or otherwise have some other sort of notoriety.  I’ve also seen most of the resort groups which typically provide a very similar feel and product.  For example, I haven’t been to NIYAMA, but I have been to Per Aquum’s other property Huvafenfushi.  Of course, there are new resorts popping up every month, but those I have not yet had a chance to grow a hankering for.  During this trip, Shangri-La Villingili, Equator Village, Athuruga, Cocoa Island and Kandolhu all had a longstanding mystique for me which was very gratifying to finally explore.  There are still a few that are high on my list that I have not yet seen, but often they are in isolated resorts (eg. Six Senses Laamu) making the logistics of touring difficult unless I want to spend all of my time and money hopping on and off sea plane transfers.

Over the next week or so, I will be posting my initial “Best of the Maldives” pieces on each of the resorts I visited in order of the visits. Meanwhile, here are a few overall reflections that apply to many if not all the resorts on the itinerary.

  • Summer Weather – Everyone is worried about the rain in the low season, but it is really the wind and clouds that can detract.  The rain is really infrequent, often takes place at night when you are tucked up in bed or else last for short bursts.  I find the more pervasive issue is the wind and cloud.  Actually, most of the time during this time of year, they are welcome additions shielding the sun and providing a cooling ocean breeze.  But the winds get too much, they make the water rough, make snorkelling more difficult, kick up currents as well as sand to reduce visibility.  And when the clouds get excessive, they cast a grey pall over paradise, and ruin photos especially the coveted sunset shots.
  • Turkish Airlines – I covered Turkish Airlines with a full post last year.  I am further convinced that they are a, if not the, top option for going to the Maldives from London especially when British Airways is not flying direct (April through September).  They offer the most options to best accommodate your schedule and they offer the best prices to accommodate your budget.  Talking to my host at Club Med from Mauritius, he flies Turkish Airways for home trips even though the route is Male-Istanbul-Johannesburg-Mauritius since it saves him so much money.  I must say, also that I was extremely impressed with the service.  One passenger was having trouble getting her phone charged with the in-seat USB charger they offer and the flight attendant spent several minutes finding a suitable alternative including taking the device up to Business Class.  When my extra-leg room seat got moved with an equipment change, the attendant sought out another one for me.  These exact issues have happened to me on BA and the response is always the inevitable “I’m terribly sorry sir” (Translated from British to International English means “Go screw yourself”).
  • Year of the Turtle – Each year seems to be dominated by a particular sea creature.  2014 was the Year of Dolphins, 2015 Year of Eagle Rays.  2016 was the Year of the Turtle seeing them nearly every single outing and seeing more than any other time ever at Kandolhu.
  • Room Types with a View – After this trip, I’ve decided to add new Room Type picture/field – “View from Room”.  I had started collecting distance to shore data, but didn’t keep it up.  This trip, I realised that the view is the most important thing.  You can be 20 feet from the shore and still not see the ocean if it is shrouded in dense foliage or not be able to access it if is rough coral.  In fact, a number of room types I inspected were differentiated purely by their view.  I’ve already covered how just west-vs-east view distinguished room types in many resorts.  But this trip I’ve noticed that other view distinctions were affecting the room category.

Here is Tour 7 At-a-Glance…

  • 5 atolls (Addu, North Male, South Male, North Ari, South Ari)
  • 1 new atoll (Addu)
  • 11 resorts
    • Embudu
    • Canareef Herathera
    • Equator Village
    • Shangri-La Vilingili
    • Taj Exotica
    • Kandolhu
    • Safari Island
    • Athuruga
    • Thudufushi
    • Cocoa
    • Club Med Finolhu
  • 3 new Resort Profile pix (at 98% completion, not many missing to get)
  • 58 new Room Type Profile pix
  • 28 Snorkel Spottings
  • 52 pages of notes
  • 5 dives
  • 6 spa treatments
  • 15 pina coladas
  • 94 Dive Charts added
  • 47 candidate “Best of the Maldives” pieces

Kandolhu - Napoleon fish diving

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 12: Club Med Finolhu Villas

Club Med Finolhu - tour

Forget all your preconceived notions about hyper-ebullient, non-stop entertainment and buzz of activity at Club Med resorts. Their Finolhu Villas marquee property in the Maldives couldn’t be more contrary to that persona.

Instead of a whirlwind of activities, Finolhu Villas was tranquil and peaceful. There is no animation team pumping up the volume every night or leading the children in a pool frolic. In fact, no children under 12 years old are even allowed on the island, and only adults (over 18) are allowed in the water villas.

Instead of value priced villas typical of many Club Med resorts, Finolhu Villas is masterfully designed with artistically undulating curves (no not *that* kind of curves) most prominent in its distinctive roofs, but echoed as a motif throughout the resort. The resort features an array of modernist styling including its striking glass floor in its over water bar, and the grounds are meticulously landscaped like some tropical stately home.

Actually, “Villas” are a misnomer. They should be called “Finolhu Suites”. All of them have living areas for lounging completely segregated on the opposite side of the bathroom characteristic of a suite. In fact, both rooms have their own large screen plasma television. I guess that is good if you can’t agree on what to watch, but if that kind of argument is happening on your honeymoon, you might want to invest in some relationship counseling. 😉

Finolhu Villas is more than an upgrade from Club Med Kani. It is a whole new luxury concept.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 11: Cocoa Island

Cocoa Island - tour

When is a resort not a resort?

Cocoa Island resort doesn’t seem like a resort. No welcome sign. No adverts for activities. No bulletin boards.

The island doesn’t seem like a resort island. It seems more like a sand bar with some palm trees on it. It has a very small operations hub in the centre of the island. Over half the staff don’t live on the island but commute from the nearby neighbour. The much smaller resort infrastructure makes it seem more like a little, exclusive community of beach houses than a resort. The resort common area buildings feel more like the community’s shared country club facilities.

For such a small island it has such a big feel. The interior of the island is very sparsely vegetated so it has vast expanses of sandy ground shade by a dense palm canopy overhead (see top two pictures below). The entire interior is clear sand. But it is the exterior that really hits you. There is almost more beach than island (see second from bottom photo). Only Anantara Kihavah compares for an expansive wrap-around coral white beach. Kihavah’s is bigger because it is a bigger island, but Cocoa’s is deeper. And if a circumambulation isn’t enough, Cocoa is blessed with one of the longer sand spits in the Maldives that is actually up to 3 times longer than the island itself (see photo at bottom).

Cocoa is definitely one of the quietest islands around. The much smaller resort infrastructure means there is less activity buzz in the foreground and less support buzz in the background. At times, I almost felt that I ought to whisper so as not to break the silence.

The villas don’t feel like a resort villas. They seem more like an elegant beach cottages. Many of the villas are constructed with lofts which segregate the sleeping area. The living area below seems like a proper lounge. The lofts also give the villas an airy spaciousness. The windows extend a towering 15 feet up, and they surround you as 3 of the 4 walls provide expensive views of the aquamarine seas.

I have anticipated seeing Cocoa Island for a few years now. One of the previous Ministers of Tourism recommended it to me as her favourite resort (she was a big fan of the Maldives Complete site). It also snared the TripAdvisor top resort spot in the Maldives a few years back. So expectations were dangerously high, and yet Cocoa managed exceeded them comfortably. If you have a spare million and are considering buying a beach house that you might only get to a few times a year, I recommend putting the money in a bank account and drawing off it visit Cocoa Island regularly instead for a homey experience in the middle of true paradise.

Cocoa Island - inner island

Cocoa Island - inner island Bruce

Cocoa Island - beach

Cocoa Island - sand spit

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 9 and 10: Athuruga and Thudufushi

Athuruga and Thudufushi - tour

To save you complete and utter repetition as well as a haunting sense of deja vu, I am combining my visit posts to the Diamond Resorts Athuruga and Thudufushi. These are not just sister properties, but identical twins. Sure there are some subtle differences, but it takes a discerning eye to spot them.

I had expected there to be more variation really. One hears a huge amount about Athuruga, but actually very little about Thudufushi. On TripAdvisor, Athuruga has 788 reviews versus about a third fewer (580) for Thudufushi. And on the TripAdvisor Maldives Forum Athuruga is very dominant while Thudufushi is rarely mentioned.

Both resorts stand out with their brilliant white colour theme which just amplifies the dazzling sunshine and infuses the islands with sparkle. The classic Maldivian colour palette is sky blue, deep marine blue, lagoon aquamarine, palm green and coral sand white (which is the motif of this blog header above). Most people get lost in the blues or draw out a bit of the green, but white is often the unsung colour. In most cases, white would seem ordinary. But here, it provides the bright contrasts of the coral sands. The white accentuates the open and airy feel to the villas.

The water villas are set farther apart from each other than any other resort I’ve seen. And the decks are wide and deep sheltered by a two story roof which frames a cathedral nave of ocean-side space. The villas also feature sumptuous waterfall drench showers which you would only expect to find in a super-deluxe 5+ star property so the whole water villa experience is more luxurious than its price point.

Both resorts are also renowned for their food. The resorts use a less conventional a la Carte All Inclusive (Vadoo and a few others do this as well). So you sit down and enjoy a full 4 course meal served to you which make the dining a bit more of a relaxed and elegant than a typical AI buffet.

Both resorts have sterling house reefs. In fact, Athuruga is rated by many experts as one of the best resort house reefs in the Maldives. Unfortunately, both have been hit hard by El Nino and COTS. That said, both resorts have invested more than any other resort in marine biologists to help with this problem as 3 are posted on Thudufushi and 4 (!) on Athuruga. Thudufushi does have a good number of scattered blue and yellow Acropora coral croppings which are inspiring encouragement that these reefs will bounce back.

So what are a couple of the differences?

  • Room Types – Thudufushi has a couple of extra room types namely the Jacuzzi Water Villa and Beach Junior Suite.
  • Size – Thudufushi is slightly larger all around. The larger island affords an inner spa garden where they hold yoga sessions, Maldivian theme nights, as well as host a table tennis and darts pavilions.

Both Athuruga and Thudufushi are polished 5-carat, Triple 000 quality gems with many scintillating facets to admire.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 8: Safari Island

Safari Island - tour

Many Maldives aficionados complain that all of the best islands are being snapped up for building (or re-building) super-luxury properties out of reach from the average pocketbook. Safari Island bucks that trend being a value priced 4 star resort on an exceptional 5 star island. In fact, Safari has actually gone in the opposite direction as the island that used to be the super exclusive Dhoni Migili. The lagoon is still filled with the fleet of 12 elegant dhoni yachts from its Dhoni Migili legacy. You can’t book these, but you do get an experience or stay on one if you stay for 7 or 14 days respectively.

With Maldivian prices challenging guests’ wallets so deeply, visitors need to choose what they want to pay for and what they don’t. What you are not paying for at Safari is fancy food, fittings and furniture. Safari villas have simple bamboo furniture with the palm weave ceilings that embraces a simpler, rustic vibe.

The small island means that villas are pushed right up close to the water’s edge. Ours was a Beach Villa and the water was lapping at our deck at high tide. Safari has another room category called a “Semi Water Villa” which are situated right over very shallow water right on the lagoon/beach edge.

The food is a good basic buffet victuals, but in the Maldives is it hard to go too far wrong with this option. Fresh tropical fruit like the ripe papaya that melts in your mouth (the best of our trip). Grilled reef fish caught that morning just yards away, local curries, with occasional chef special treat like the banana chocolate cake with vanilla sauce. How much more do you really need from a resort kitchen?

But the island itself is a remarkable patch of sea and sand. The beaches have some of the finest talcum powder soft grains I’ve ever wriggled my toes in (in the Maldives or anywhere else). And the house reef has to be a contender for one of the top 10 in the Maldives.

If you want 5-star Maldives “the landscape” without paying 5-star Maldives the luxury resort prices, then check out Safari Island.