Tour 17 – Hard Rock

Hard Rock - tour 2020

Hard Rock brings its iconic hip style to the Maldives injecting a bit of up-tempo vibe to this paradise spot.

So many prospective visitors ask about entertainment and activity on offer in the Maldives fearful that a however idyllic, such a holiday might just be too indolent for them. Hard Rock Maldives should put their worries at ease that they will be too much at ease.

A centrepiece to their lively atmosphere is their pool equipped with a thrilling slide (dubbed appropriately “Deep Purple” for its colour and elevatin), luxurious floats and a poolside party swim-up bar. The energetic fun seems to go day and night as stumbled across the largest and most enthusiastic audience for an evening’s entertainment I’ve ever seen in the Maldives. It was at karaoke night hosted by the Hard Rock Café during our stay (we had dropped in to purchase a few of the iconic Hard Rock t-shirts as gifts) and was full of all ages (families and couples), all enthusiastically appreciating every rendition of Abba or whatever else was available on the playlist (see clip below)

Yes, Hard Rock has the brilliant white beaches, tranquil waters and swaying palm trees for any one looking to just chill out as well.

Good, good, good, good vibes at hard Rock Maldives.

Tour 17 – SAii Lagoon

SAii Lagoon Tour

SAii Lagoon is the most lush, opulent resort in the mid-market Maldives.

We’ve not seen a resort more packed with colourful landscaping which complements the colourful décor of the villas. And this rich visual aesthetic is carried inside the rooms themselves inviting décor filling the space. So many resorts slap a perfunctory print on otherwise barren walls, but SAii Lagoon rooms are filled with detail. The resort reminded us of Velaa in its opulent aesthetic (but a fraction of the price) and of Cocoon or Finolhu in its funky vibe.  SAii Lagoon describes itself as the “chilled” sibling in The Crossroads resort complex to Hard Rock Maldives’ more active vibe.

I found the resort a masterclass in product marketing. They know who they are. They are not afraid of people to not like them them because the that is the price of being distinctive enough that many people adore you.

Like The Crossroads, itself we felt transported to a version of the Maldives that was current, cosmopolitan and still in keeping with the aquatic and tropical aesthetic that has been drawing us to this paradise destination for decades.

COVID PROTOCOLS – SAii Lagoon (and all of The Crossroads complex) is taking COVID prevention extremely seriously including the following measures:

  • Health form completed on entry
  • Temperature check on arrival and departure
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers distributed liberally throughout
  • “This Table Has Ben Sanitised” signed
  • Hilton “Clean Stay” protocols
  • Sanitising floor mat (see photo below) – I haven’t seen this measure before either in the USA or the UK!

SAii Lagoon - tour 2020

Tour 17 – Crossroads

Crossroads - aerial

A destination within a destination – Patrick de Staerke, GM

And what a “destination” it is! The Crossroads complex is an exciting manifestation of a colourful and inviting 21st century Maldives. Infusing itself with the palettes and ingredients of the Maldives while building a vibrant, modern incarnation of this sunny paradise.

“The Crossroads” refers to the overall archipelago within an archipelago of a 9-island complex being fashioned by ambitious terraforming (ie. making islands from sand dredged from the bottom of the ocean) as well as the circular maritime hub at its heart. The latter forms a circular harbour with the waters’ edge lined with colourful seaside bistros and boutiques (see photo below). So much has been written about the ‘sinking’ of the Maldives with rising ocean levels, and yet this is a story of the Maldives rising out of the ocean. It is not just a new property, and not just a new concept, but it is an entirely new class of resorts for the Maldives. The biggest change to Maldivian tourism since the introduction of guesthouses.

Crossroads Maldives evokes the most vibrant seaside community destinations of the world: Key West, Florida; Murano, Italy; Cape May, New Jersey; Positano, Italy; Charleston, South Carolina; Barefoot Landing, North Carolina; Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; Willemstad, Curacao; Paradise Island, Bahamas. The Crossroads is a revelation..of what the Maldives can be as a sparkling maritime cosmopolitan centre moving beyond the charming “thatch-covered fishing island turned resort” concept that has prevailed to date.

Scale not only gives you variety, but it also enables scale economies. One of the reasons why Maldives is renowned as an expensive destination is because the “one island, one resort” format greatly restricts scale. Each tiny resort island has to build and sustain a mini-city of power generation, water distillation, waste treatment and all the services required to host dozens of guests expecting catering and amenities of things not found in the Maldives. The Crossroad complex means that its properties (ie. SAii Lagoon, Hard Rock and soon to be several more) can deliver some of the best value-for-money rates in the Maldives.

A number of Maldives aficionados (and residents themselves) are not fans of this radical transformation of their sea-into-landscape. My investigation indicates that upon completion, the complex has grown immensely in popularity with the Maldivians. Some “Maldives purists” continue to protest seeming to think that anything more elaborate than a thatched villa on an island is “spoiling” the destination. They love the natural simplicity of the Maldives and its isolation from civilisation as do I. But those who accept only this quaint, longstanding model seem to want the Maldivians to live in some Williamsburg-esque nostalgia.

Some detractors express concerns about environmental impact, and surely there is some. But I am impressed with the degree of impact assessment the developers and the government did prior to construction (EIA for Enboodhoo reclamation project-Borrow area.pdf). One of the interesting stats was that live coral cover for the area was under 5%. The Crossroads also showcases their mascot “Emma” extensively around the island. Emma is a sea turtle who was found to be resident in the area when they performed their impact statement and the blueprints for the resort were modified to avoid disrupting her habitat. She still lives in the area and the dive centre even offers snorkel excursions to go see her in the places she frequents.

Crossroads - main street

   

Crossroad - mural

Tour 17 – KIHAA Maldives

KIHAA Tour

KIHAA is simply one of the best resort *islands* in the Maldives. No wonder people have been flocking to it for decades. I have coveted a visit for years for this classic property. It started as a simple divers’ haven, grew into an Italian “Club Vacances” and some refurb a few years ago. But it still retains a classic Maldives resort feel.

KIHAA achieves the rare island trifecta (the closest comparison is Anantara Kihavah):

  • House Reef – One of the best house reefs we have seen in recent years. CORAL! More than half of the reef was live coral (the “lumpy” coral varieties, eg. massives like favia or prorates, seem to be thriving better than the “branchy” varieties, eg. staghorn, fan, table). Dramatic topology. Easy access. Colourful schools of yellow striped convict tangs, sergeant major fish, Moorish idols. So good, that one of our Amilla dives came over to dive the Kihaa house reef.
  • Beaches – Big, white, wrap around beach not seen since Kihavah. Flour soft sand especially by the water’s edge. An active beach duo is cleaning it constantly. Great for sunset circumambulations. Beach dining every night (partly due to low occupancy).
  • Lagoon – Millpond calm lagoon with turquoise vistas and easy swimming (which was useful as the property’s pools were just being brought back on line after lockdown).

Furthermore, the island scale is pretty much as Goldilocks size – big enough to support good amount of infrastructure but small enough to walk around in under 20 minutes.

A resort like KIHAA demonstrates how difficult it is to pin a star-rating on a property. The island itself is a 5-star deluxe with its exceptional “trifecta” of beach, reef and lagoon. The resort also boasts exceptional sports facilities including two smart tennis courts and two first-rate squash courts as well as finely kitted out gym. The lodging is more the 4-star category with handsome styling (recently spruced up).

The operations are difficult to assess at this time given the COVID situation. After 10 months of mothballing, it is like re-opening a resort with lots of cleaning, maintenance, supplying, etc to get up and running. Like all Maldives resorts, the staff are scrambling to provide the best experience possible for the intrepid and anxious early post-lockdown guests, but they face intractable constraints on availability of personnel (who have to quarantine) and even supplies.

With the resurgent coral and the vintage villas, our visit very much felt like going back in time to our first magical visits to the Maldives years ago.

COVID PROTOCOLS – Take your temperature on arrival, all staff wear masks and sanitising stations are found throughout the island.

KIHAA Tour 2

Tour 17 – Amilla Fushi: Revisiting the Reinvented

Tour 17 - Amilla - bikes
Amilla makes custom license plates for its guests’ bicycles

Jason and Victoria Kruse have simply re-invented Amilla transforming it into a distinctive property of unpretentious luxury and style. “Humble chic” was the best way I could describe it. Amilla is the place to go for people who appreciate quality and refinement without fussy ostentation and OTT extravagance.

I have a fairly strong policy to not revisit resorts as I am so keen to see as many in the Maldives as I can. But there is one management team for whom I will break that rule – Jason and Victoria Kruse. Partly out of gratitude as they were a catalyst to me investing deeper into the website. When I visited their resort, Kurumba, in 2009 and they raved about my recently launched Maldives Complete, it inspired me to put more into the project.. Partly because I admire what they do to a property filling it with lots of distinctive features that are the types of things that I love to write about. But mostly, because over the years we have developed a deep friendship with them sharing thoughts and ideas about attracting guests to the Maldives and appreciating this paradise.

So when Lori and I happened upon an opportunity to escape dreary wintry England and Jason insisted that I had to include his new baby, Amilla (formerly known as “Amilla Fushi”), we couldn’t resist. We were hesitant at first because, frankly, the original Amilla Fushi property left us a little underwhelmed. When we first visited, it was a striking property with its stylish modern design, but the expectations set were even higher with its $2000+ per night price tag. One simple point of comparison was that it was priced at the super luxury high end, and yet after our visit I only identified 16 “Best Of the Maldives” pieces to write about (by comparison, most of the top flight properties like Soneva Fushi, Velaa and One & Only Reethi Rah boast over 50).

The very first thing Jason did was take the property out of the super-premium bracket by slashing the rack rates by more than half. Just taking this step was a game changer. Now, this resort moved from being a lackluster super-luxury property to being a table topping luxury one. Price is a hugely important variable. Maldives holidays stretch mostly peoples’ budgets and you want to pack in as much as delight as you can for such an outlay.

Shifting Amilla’s positioning was only the first step to a true re-invention of its ethos and vibe. Of course, Jason and Victoria, are bringing loads of innovations big and small (stay tuned for a lots of fun posts). Most importantly, they are throwing themselves into the island. Jason and Victoria are part of a select group of Maldives devotees (with whom I can deeply empathize) with a true passion for this spot on the planet. They are not managers doing their stint for a couple year contract and then jetting off to their next posting. Rather, they have fallen in love with the destination and are committed for the long haul (like Patrick now at SAii Lagoon, Sonu and Eva at Soneva, or Giovanna at Nika). The island is already bubbling with their spirit. It is more than a job for them and really their whole life.

COVID PROTOCOL – Amilla boasts one of the most intense COVID prevention protocols in the Maldives. They have invested in their own testing capability so they can test each and every guest on arrival and provide results overnight (I only know of Soneva that also has this capacity and regime). All guests are required to quarantine in their room until PRC results arrive. This way they catch anyone who might have possibly picked up the virus from the time they took their Fit-to-Fly test 96 hours before departure.

Tour 17 - Amilla - Victoria
Victoria and Lori catching up

Tour 17: Flying the COVID-Free Skies to Paradise

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to escaping to paradise is getting there. With the “Tier 4” lockdown announced in the UK, that will scupper possibilities for many. But for those living in areas still able to do international travel, the flying is the first, and perhaps most stressful aspect of getting there is the flying. And our trip was no exception as we grappled with impediments from 3 major carriers:

  • QATAR AIRWAYS – I purchased my ticket through British Airways where I had a bunch of “vouchers” accrued from COVID cancelled trips. BA did not have any flights available, but they did present “One World Partner” options for me to use including some flights from Qatar Airways which worked well enough. What they don’t tell you (and it took hours for me to figure out) is that you cannot purchase extra legroom seats on partner flights. A big concern for me because I am so tall. BA said contact Qatar because Qatar controls seat allocation, and Qatar told me to call BA because BA issued and controls the ticket. As I have experienced in the past, these “partnerships” like “One World” are more gimmicks and be aware that if you get drawn into them, you are likely to face huge complexities in your travel. As if COVID isn’t introducing enough complications at the moment. Also, their “Privilege Club” has probably the worst customer service of any airline I have ever dealt with. I spent 6 weeks and countless communications to get a typo fixed in my profile (which is critical because if your booking name doesn’t match your passport name exactly, they can prevent you from boarding).
  • EMIRATES – I give Emirates credit for a great booking experience including and easy refund when the UK Lockdown II required us to cancel our first trip booked. The biggest problem is that when we tried to re-booked we learned that the required stop-over in Dubai violated the “travel corridor” requirements and meant we would have to quarantine in the UK on return. That provision has since been modified to allow certain stop-overs, but at the time we didn’t want to face the possibility of paying for two weeks of freedom in paradise with a fortnight of sequestration (little did we know).
  • BRITSH AIRWAYS – BA turned out to be really the only option not wanting to quarantine over Christmas And yet, shortly after booking our flights, Sir Lankan offered direct flights and Qatar/Emirates got an exemption from the stopover constraint. The prices were better than usual for this time of year, but not the super discounts of November. The booking was smooth as well as a steady stream of travel advice from BA to help preparations.

Off we go. Yes, the trip there was more complicated, but in fairness matters were no worse than travelling to the Maldives a decade ago. Back before online check-in, airport kiosks, efficient boarding, rich shopping options and in-flight amenities. I know all of us living through 2020 dream of turning back the clock, but this might have gone too far back. In fairness, aside from a few temperature checks and squirts of hand sanitizer, the primary COVID imposition was the PCR test required for the Maldives (and many other destinations)

No online check-in as they had to check PCR certificates and the Maldives QR code (you get when you complete your Maldivian arrival Travel Health Authorisation). So for the first time in years, we arrived at Terminal 5 confronted by snaking queues as agents did check-in the “old fashioned way” (boarding passes, baggage check and passport port check all done by the far-too-few overworked agents at the desks). The agents were especially exasperated by so many people trying to travel and not really having a clue as to the requirements (One family of about 8 took 45 minutes to check-in, if they succeeded. We know because we were in the queue for 90 minutes and watching this one hapless family occupy one of the precious few gate agents was one of our bits of entertainment to pass the time).

The flight itself was very well managed with lots of safety protocols. Chief among them were mandatory mask wearing at all time (except for when you were “actively eating”, ie. take a bite and put the mask back on to chew). Frankly, in the spectrum of possible airplane discomforts, this added one was pretty trivial.

We arrived to Male airport facing arrival queues also not seen for a decade since the agents were coping with the other side of PCR tests, health declaration paperwork and a generous helping of tourist confusion. Our flight had been delayed a few hours and the long lines meant that our PCR test was literally about to “expire” (ie. be beyond the 96 hour requirement). We made it through with 10 minutes to spare, but in fairness, the authorities I approached about the issue seemed pretty understanding about the delays and I don’t think they would have turned us away because we got to the desk a bit after the official expiry.

One final moan on my soapbox. My wife Lori works in an NHS-supported care facility and as such get COVID tested every week as a matter of SOP. But the results that she gets back are not PCR certificates and simple electronic messages saying “test negative”. It would seem to me that in addition to rounds of applause, a simple and pretty cost-free gesture that would save NHS staff some money would be to adapt the weekly COVID test results to be PCR “Fit to Fly” ready. Then, NHS staff wouldn’t have to pay considerable amounts for extra tests (on top of the many they already take) if they want a well-earned break.

   

Best of the Maldives: Gingerbread Houses – SAii Lagoon

SAii Lagoon - gingerbread 2

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads…”

Guests at SAii Lagoon didn’t have to wait until Christmas Eve for such sweet dreams as their seasonal festivities started with the arrival of two gingerbread houses as big and colourful as the resort itself.

Also, in the run up to the holiday, the kids club also a complimentary Santa’s workshop in making gingerbread houses where the guests’ little elves could make their own tasty villa confections.

To Maldives lovers everywhere, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

SAii Lagoon - gingerbread 1

5 Reasons to Go to the Maldives Now

Imuga

When the pandemic first hit and the lockdowns were imposed, we made an emphatic decision to simply not travel in the year 2020. We were seasoned enough travellers (and savvy enough health professionals both working in the medical arena) that we knew it would be many months before the world had a grip on this grippe. We knew that there would be no switch flipped that turned matters from terrible to fine. Rather, the process would be a long and drawn-out chipping away at the pandemic making life more safe and allowing more activity to go on bit by bit.

We had decided that it would simply be too risky and stressful to travel during the year with all the variables and all the volatility of the situation, not to mention the first and foremost risk, which is contracting the virus itself. We would not do anything that wasn’t deemed an acceptable risk, as per our medical training. But within the first 6 months, the world pretty much figured out how to contain the spread (the biggest problem is getting people to behave in a manner which contained the spread) so some possibilities for travel were emerging.

Travel is already a highly regulated environment for safety (just think of the boarding screening process), so the industry is pretty well structured to adopt safety measures. After an accident or terror threat, the aviation industry makes changes pretty effectively and pretty quickly. It has to. So, we felt that they would probably institute protocols that would mitigate most of the risk fairly well.

What we didn’t trust was the governments. A government springing a change in rules at the last minute throwing our trip up in the air. And as anticipated, that is exactly what happened. We bit the bullet and booked a trip to the Maldives for mid-November only to have the entire thing upended by England Lockdown II. And not just official pronouncements being sprung on us, but also lower-level functionaries whose job it was to implement them not reading or confusing the fine print in the latest directive and in so doing holding us up at some point for some confusion over paperwork or something.

Still, we persevered got ourselves to our beloved Maldives this week.  Several days in the trip has been magical. Not perfect by any means. But nonetheless magical.

Here are the reasons to consider taking the plunge and escaping to paradise:

  1. Great Deals – The deals are the catalyst. In November, we started reading about some of the deals on offer, and we couldn’t help but salivate. Air fares and resort prices were both 30-50% off. With our 8 months of cabin fever, we couldn’t resist the temptation.
  2. Flexible Terms – It used to be that to get good prices, you had to commit sizeable sums of non-refundable deposits. Even a minor change in plans would incur big service charges. COVID has changed most of that. Airlines and hotels are now very flexible in their terms so risks of losing your payment are much lower. That said, do check the terms of your travel and if your airline or hotel is not providing flexibility, then look elsewhere. As it happened, this consideration hit us in our planning. We had planned for our trip in November…but then the UK lockdown hit scuppered it. But we were readily refunded all of our booking charges or were able to move them to our revised trip in December.
  3. Aggro in Perspective – Yes, COVID protocols have added extra aggro to the whole process of travelling. The biggest being the PCR “Fit to Fly” certificates, but smaller inconveniences like wearing a mask through the airport and throughout the flight, health declaration forms, etc. While these will seem onerous to the modern casual traveller, they are not really any harder than visas and a vaccination required for typical adventure travel even a few years ago (I remember that I had to hire a consultant to help me get a Russian tourist visa a few decades ago because the process was so convoluted). COVID has just made all travel into “adventure” travel in terms of logistics. Yes, the airport queues are longer dealing with all the protocols and paperwork, but this isn’t entirely new to the world of travel. And people are regularly pointing remote thermometers at you. A bit of work, but not unbearable.
  4. COVID Safety – Tourism is the lifeblood of the Maldives so it is no surprise that they have instituted some of the most stringent COVID precautions in the world. As a result, the incidence of COVID in the Maldives is one of the lowest in the world, earning the Maldives a travel corridor with a number of countries, including the UK (which means that you don’t have to quarantine on return).
  5. Post-Lockdown Paradise – The Maldives feels like the antithesis of lockdown. Sitting on a beach taking in an infinite horizon is the perfect antidote to months of staring at the same four walls.

Haven’t Seen Yet #17 – Sharknado Edition

Whale Shark cake

Looking for that special something to buy your favourite resort for Christmas. Well, here is the 17th (!) edition of “Things I Haven’t Seen Yet in the Maldives” (after 20+ years of visiting and researching them). We are hoping to discover some “haven’t seens” (as well as a Santa sack of other previously unsung treats with a December bolt to the paradise in 2sleeps!…stay tuned).

  1. Whale Shark Cake – Gorgeous! [ABOVE]
        
  2. Shark Hoodie – For my house reef home boys.
    Shark hoodie
          
  3. Whale Shark Swim Suits – Keia’s “Maldivas Collection” includes a variety of whale shark inspired designs as well as other designs with coral and water patterns.
    Whale shark swimsuit
          
  4. Paul & Shark Wear – For something a bit more sophisticated, Paul & Shark brand not only makes resort wer, but adorns it with their trademark shark silhouette logo.
    Paul and Shark clothing
        
  5. Knitted Whale Shark – No longer in the shop but on Instagram.
    Knitted whale shark
        
  6. Shark Purse – What better guard to your valuables?
    Shark purse    
        
  7. Shark Pencil Case – Or your pencils?
    Whale shark pencil case    
        
  8. Baby Shark Snorkel Mask – Baby Shark, Do do do do do do…
    Baby shark snorkel mask    
        
  9. Whale Shark Bracelet – I’ve seen plenty of whale shark pendants and earrings, but this is a bit more distinctive.
    Whale shark bracelt    
        

Write Every Day of Your Life

writing every day

  • Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.”— Ray Bradbury

A dozen years of researching and writing about the Maldives here and still the second most common question I get is “Why do you do it?” I make no money (no ads, no sponsorship, no selling). In fact, the whole venture costs me more than several trips to the Maldives for fun with the hosting and other expenses of keeping the site maintained. It is an expensive hobby. But one that comes with more dividends than just digital escapism (from the often dank climes of the British Isles) and fan boy entertainment. I especially appreciate the comment by Bradbury of “see what happens” as the whole Maldives Complete odyssey has been packed with serendipity and the adventure of otherwise unlikely opportunities and interactions arising. And finally, The whole experience of exploring, delving and processing is one which exercises my curiosity, creativity and critical thinking:

  • We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” – E. O. Wilson