What I Haven’t Seen Yet – Honeymoon Package

Maldives honeymoon specials

 

 

The most frequently claimed (and most stubbornly reluctant I am to accord) is the “Best of the Maldives” for “Most Romantic”. On this last trip, Bandos pointed to its “Most Romantic” credentials (including its TripAdvisor Travellers Choice Awards), and Jumeirah made an impressive case for its Dhevanafushi property. Such claims always get me the most sceptical. I try to mask my cynicism when I ask “Are your sunsets more golden, your starlight more twinkling, your palms more rhythmic in their swaying??”

“Best of the Maldives” is is more rhetorical than scientific, but I do try to put some rigour into it. I try to have something objective and specific to hang my hat on as to why one’s feature is a touch more distinctive than another’s. And the more esoteric and specific the better. I will more readily accept that someone has a unique toe nail scrubber in their spa. But the the bar is so obscenely high for “Most Romantic” in the Maldives, I wonder how resorts could possibly stand out from the crowded field.

What does surprise me, and another thing I haven’t yet seen in the Maldives, is really the “uber” Honeymoon package. Perhaps it is the American “OTT” (Over-The-Top) in me, but I wonder where is the resort that has just blown the door off of a honeymoon package.

I don’t know any islands that even do the following which are popular honeymoon treats…

  • Mirrored ceilings (and other Poconos inspiration)
  • Breakfast in bed service (room service tweaked to be in bed with bed trays and the porter letting themselves in, after knocking of course).
  • In room chocolate fountain one evening (chocolate fountain at Kuramathi spa is inspired, but having it in the bedroom even more so).

Lots of resorts offer lots of the usual suspects in honeymoon packages – bottle of champagne, beach dinner, bed/table decoration, couples massage. But I don’t know any that combines them into one big ‘Honeymoon Ultimate’ package. The biggest honeymoon packages probably offer about a third of the list below which lists the most common ingredients in resort honeymoon packages.

  • Different bed decoration every night (most do one night)
  • Deserted Island picnic lunch and then dinner on another day
  • Candlelight beach dinner every night (most do one night)
  • Special couple spa treatment (with Kuramathi’s approach as a role model or perhaps Four Season Landaa Giraavaru’s romantic treatment)
  • Vow repeat/renewal/blessing
  • Champagne sunset cruise
  • Villa with private (secluded) pool
  • Reef generation frame to mark the occasion
  • Wedding photography

Maybe resorts feel that they already offer such a perfect honeymoon destination, certainly renowned as one of the tops in the world, why pour lots of money in gilding the lily. The two primary reasons would be to stand out against the huge competition from the many other resorts which share this uniformly romantic place on earth. The other obvious reason is to make money by charging for the super package.

Even More What I Haven’t Seen

Binoculars

 

And now the third annual “What I Haven’t Seen’. Despite more resorts in the Maldives and more resorts I’ve seen and researched, the list of crazy things one could do in the Maldives (if some venturing soul decided to offer them) just keeps growing. Here is the latest line-up of bizarre possibilities…

 

FOOD

Lobster Ice Cream – As I recently noted, Lobster is the luxury seaside dish which is why you find it prominently in nearly every resort as the special treat meal. And since ice cream is the universal hot weather treat, you have to wonder when lobster ice cream is going to come out of one of the creative resort kitchens.

Lobster ice cream

Lobster mac & cheese – Quite the trendy dish in posh USA restaurants combing the quintessential luxury ingredient into the classically budget recipe.  Mehan’s Kitchen recipe (below) adds the bonus posh ingredient of truffles.

Lobster macaroni and cheese

 

SPORT

Water Bikes – I’m thinking that Jason at Kurumba will have his eye on this one.  Waiting for the “Tour de Kurumba” peloton.

Water bike

Grass tennis court – On the heels of Wimbledon, the obvious question is where is the ‘grass court’. The ultimate in tennis sophistication. It turns our that One & Only Reethi Rah had one but it was replaced which is not surprising since they are very high maintenance.

Grass tennis court

Ballroom Dancing – With the television rise of the “Strictly Come Dancing” franchise, Ballroom and Latin dancing has made a come back in mainstream popularity around the world, but especially in UK, Germany, Italy, Russia, Australia and China. And we happen to know that one of the top World Ten Dance couples in the world, Richard Still and Morgan Hemphill have been keen to see the Maldives in their world travels. They give dazzling shows, but are also superlative teachers who can get groups of people doing basic steps very quickly.  If I were a resort owner, I would invite them down for a week.

Richard Still and Morgan Hemphill

 

 

Archery – Hulhule used to offer this activity, but no longer.

Beach archery

Water rope swing – Where in the northern hemisphere the best bodies of water we could hope for would be a swimming hole tucked away in the woods, they were invariably dressed up a bit with the ubiquitous rope swing.

Rope Swing

UNDERWATER

Breathing Observation Bubble – Aka “BOB”. Seriously, where are these?

Breathing Observation Bubble

Underwater sculpture garden. I read this story “Trying to Protect a Reef With an Otherworldly Diversion” and thought that this would be an excellent idea for those resorts not amply blessed with great house reefs, but situated in broad sandy lagoons. Four Seasons already sort of does this with Reefscaping topiary that creates a sort of visual interest. As it happens, when we were diving the Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo house reef last week, one of the sights was a sunken mermaid statue which was a fun discovery. After years of coral growing on it, it had developed an aquatic patina like you had stumbled upon some mysterious antiquated relic.

Underwater sculpture garden

Underwater snorkel signs – I read this article “Exploring Nature” writting about the Maldives by Clear Water Surf Travel that mentioned “submerged signage” on the house reef. After some investigation with Shangri-La Villingili, it turns out that they were no longer there. But I thought that it would be a delightful idea. Probably not for an entire house reef, but perhaps a section of house reef. Maybe a weak section of house reef that would otherwise be underwhelming, but adding a few signs identifying coral types could liven it up with a bit of education. Increasingly resorts are adding such helpful guides to the above-water nature.

Underwater snorkel signs

RELAXING

Gondolas – Prior to last week, this seemed like a natural. Gondolas are iconic of relaxing, exotic romance just made for calm water. Maldives is sort of a tropical Venice anyway with a profusion of Italian resorts. It turns out that Nika even has a Venezia theme including palazzos in the lagoon (used as channel markers) so I’m looking at Nika for this idea.

Gondola

EZ Hang Chairs – I see more type of lounge chairs and hammocks in the Maldives than I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Befitting of the indolent lounging ethos of the destination. A resort looking for even more variety of options would be well served to check out the EZ-Hang Chairs line.

EZ Hang Chairs

Ice Cave – Cooling down, especially after intense heat of a sauna or steam, is a great cardio workout. One & Only Reethi Rah has ice fountain, but our favourite local spa Pennyhill Park has taken this concept further with an ice wall that you lay your body against. Brrrr…refreshing!

Pennyhill Park ice wall

Facekinis – We learned more about the line “-kinis” in this world this trip. Reading the resort guidelines at Nika, we saw topless sunbathing referred to as sporting a “monokini”. Kurumba sells its own line of “Burkinis” aka “Burqini (post to follow). So, especially with the rise of Chinese guests, where are the “Facekinis”, ie. a “ski mask designed for swimmers and beachgoers which covers the head and reveals only the eyes, nose, and mouth. This mask is popular in the Chinese city of Qingdao, where it is used by people for protecting themselves from UV rays while tanning and from jellyfish while at the beach.

Facekini

More That I Have Now Seen

One and Only Reethi Rah Maldivian curry

The Maldives keeps evolving and adding every year and invariably the things I hadn’t seen as of twelve months ago have popped up in a few cases. Here are a few of the past gaps that you can now find in the Maldives…

  • Zip line – This wasn’t on any of my earlier lists, but I had jotted it down for mentioning this year…until until I visited Reethi Rah and saw theirs.
  • Banoffee Pie – Not quite Banoffe Pie, but Banoffee inspired.
  • “Gourmet Maldivian Restaurant” – Kurumba and Jumeirah Vittaveli (see above) are getting close with their extensive range of Maldivian influenced haute cuisine (more to follow).
  • “Snorkel Lilo” – 2 models in fact (stay tuned for posts)
  • Sea Horses
  • Beach Wheelchair
  • In Ocean Dining

Maldives Tour 2013 – Overview

Tour writing on boat

What goes on tour does anything but stay on tour when it comes to my Maldives running around. I come back from Tour 4 with a wealth of new data for the database, pictures for the profiles (especially the Room Type profiles), Snorkel Spottings, candidates for “Best of the Maldives” posts, and new friends and supporters, as well as a few overall observations about tourism in the country.

RESEARCH – The near final tally is…

  • New Resorts Visited – 9
  • Snorkel Spottings – 28
  • Profile Data – 17
  • Room Pictures – 58
  • Best of Maldives candidates – 128

Not only have I added to the database this year, but the trip has prompted me to expand it as well with two new fields…

  • Walkways – It was Gangehi’s distinctive walkways (post to come) that made me think about (a) how the walkways of the resort islands vary, and (b) the impact this detail has on the experience and (foot) feel of each. In particular, they do tend to fall into one of three distinct categories…
    • Soft Sand
    • Hard Sand
    • Paved
  • Marine Biologist – I now have a pretty full collection of the marine biologists on staff at the resorts which can be a useful filter for people looking for a ore educational or ecological visit.

TRENDS – Each year also provides a chronological benchmark in the tourism trends of the country. In the past, I’ve commented on the escalating flight to quality as resorts renovate with more and more elaborate luxuries. This year I noticed…

  • Privacy – In the past, most Maldives resorts featured stand-alone villas littered about a plot of sand. A few islands offered special privacy features or villas (often “Suites” or “Residences”) with special private areas. Now it seems as if lots of resorts are investing in more in enhancing the privacy of stay. Walls, enclosed areas, shrub lines. On this tour alone, the resorts of Vittaveli, Nika, Halaveli, Baros and Kurumba has all made substantial investments in privacy features.
  • Diversity – The era of the country-specific resort seems to be waning. Some resorts through heritage, marketing and infrastructure do continue to maintain certain ambiences which evoke certain national cultures. But the number of resorts devoted to a particular market is reducing steadily. Bathala, Gangehi and Nika are three resorts that have traditionally catered primarily to the Italian market, for example. But the rise of Internet direct booking and economic pressures on certain markets have led to these and other resorts becoming increasingly diverse in the provenance profile of their guests. Also, the somewhat feared Chinese invasion seems abated as growth from that market has levelled out. Increasingly you are finding a more diverse and mixed set of nationalities at every island.

SEASONS – When we first started coming to the Maldives, we invariably chose the month of peak sunshine – February – which also coincided with the depths of the English winter as well as the peak prices of the high season. In more recent years, we have been coming in the ‘low season’ of July which suits our schedule better and also offers better prices due to the ‘variable’ climate at that time of year. The weather is one of the biggest draws to the Maldives (“The Sunny Side of Life”) and probably the most frequent asked of the FAQs on the TripAdvisor Forum.

So what is the difference between February and July. Essential February is stunningly bright and still, while July is more muted and breezy. For most, the former is much preferred (though my wife, Lori, being ‘of a certain age’, in her words, confessed that she preferred the gentle and cooling breeze of the wet monsoon season). I remember waking up each morning on our February trips and pulling back the curtain thinking that surely some clouds must have rolled in over night only to find that the sunshine was as bright as the previous day and the day before that. When I pull back the curtain in July, I’m less certain of what I will get. There are more variations in the atmosphere. By and large, it too is ‘bright’, but there will be clouds peppering the sky and breezes stirring up the ocean. I’ve actually assembled a handy reference table below to try to characterise as simply as possible what general weather one can tend to expect from a February visit versus July…

 

Season comparison

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 10: Kurumba

Kurumba tour 2

The newest old resort in the Maldives.

You’d think after 2 week long visits I would have finally all there is to see of a resort. Especially one you can walk from one side to the other in 7 minutes. But my final stop on the 2013 tour at Kurumba revealed as many new and exciting aspects as I had seen most of the week on my maiden visits.

I was hesistant to add Kurumba to the itinerary at first trying as I always want to gather as much new information as possible. I won’t say it’s a whole new resort, but it is a lot new – room refurbishments, restaurant overhaul, style upgrades. And simply the most ambitious and exciting recycling initiative in the country at the moment. Anyone bothered by the unpleasantness of Thilafushi would be well served to consider Kurumba’s pioneering work here (stay tuned for a big post on this work).

What wasn’t hard to convince me was to have another round of the lively house reef. I’ve been touting it as the most active house reef in terms of marine life that I have come across (but, hey, I’ve only snorkelled about 40 house reefs). Some skeptics were curious to see if this year I hit the same success. Well, actually not. Even more success! Not only is it the absolute shark bonanza of house reefs (we spotted 7), but we saw more of the ‘Big 5’ snorkelling. As logged on Snorkel Spotter, Lori and I also saw 2 lovely turtles and a huge sting ray. Not to mention the big schools of Sergent Major, Parrotfish, Bleu Striped Snappers, and a group of fluorescent squid passing by. There is no such thing as a sure thing (to see special marine life) in house reef snorkelling, but Kurumba is the closest thing there is to one. And finally, there were lots of signs of the corals coming back strongly with bits of blue, green and yellow tips scattered everywhere.

Kurumba is possibly the ‘Unsung Hero’ of resorts in the Maldives. Existing in the shadow the Maldives and of its own history produce mistaken preconceptions that it is too close to the built-up Male and it must be past it prime. But, Kurumba has been a trail blazer since it first pioneered the concept of a Maldiviain resort and remains in tune with the modern Maldives. The ancient Buddhist saying is that you can never step in the same river twice. That is certainly the case for the Maldives and even more so for the moving and shaking Kurumba. Don’t make the mistake of overlooking it when considering an exceptional Maldives resort.

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 9: Baros

Baros tour

Pepperoni Pizza, Hot Fudge Sundae, Dry Martini. Just a few examples that of simple concoctions for classic cravings. Get choice ingredients and blend them just right and you have an irresistible temptation. Sort of like Baros – gorgeous house reef, classy décor, lush island. Stir gently with a tropical breeze. Savour.

One ingredient deliberately avoided by Baros is distraction of children. Under 8s are not allowed and there are no family rooms so few teenagers tend to come.

Baros has had more years than most to work on its special recipe. It was the 3rd resort in the Maldives (after Kurumba and Bandos) and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Quiet elegance. It doesn’t splash around a lot with flashy features. A great over water restaurant, a great house reef (probably the best hard coral we have seen since Mirihi) and attention to details of quality and privacy. A real lovers’ haven.

 

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 8: Nika

Nika tour

Curiouser and curiouser. Just when you think you have seen it all after visiting 47 resorts in the Maldives (and researching all the others), you pull up to a place like Nika which defies comparison to anything else in the Maldives.

It’s easier to compare Nike to a hotel back in the old country of its heritage, Italy, than to another Maldivian property. In fact, their tag line is “Maldives Italian Look”. It was one of the first 10 resorts in the Maldives (and among an even more select group of that original 10 that are still around). The original owner developed a distinctive villa style, part ocean influence and part Italian old world style with curios strewn about.

The whole feel of the place reminded us of one of our favourite Italian hotels – Hotel Florence. On the shores of Lake Como, the infamous town of Bellagio makes most people think of the flashy, slick, 5-star-plus luxury Hotel Serbelloni. But we found that the Florence, just next door, exudes charm and character, with exceptional views of the lake and at a fraction of the price. That is exactly like Nika.

The ‘villas’ are unlike anything you have come across in the Maldives. With their distinctive size (the bathrooms are bigger than most bungalows in the Maldives…seriously, you could play a game of squash in there) and privacy, they are more like ‘beach homes’ or ‘seaside cottages’.

It is not just the villas. The whole island smacks of something like a little seaside village rather than a resort. Low set stone walls line two parallel sand boulevards giving the island the ambience of an exclusive community. Since everything is sequestered into its own private area, you see very little of the island interior. The individual residences are as private as the staff residences are in most resorts. And you can’t see much of the outer island by walking around the shore because guests are not allowed to walk on any beach except their own and the two public beach areas.

Of course, you can go one step further out and snorkel around the island on the house reef. While hit by El Nino a while back, it still sports a fine drop off teeming with lots of fish (we saw sharks and two moray eels nestled together in a crevice).

This tour feels a bit like raiding the Italian stash of prized resorts (sorry Roberta). Bathala, Gangehi and now Nika. No major UK operator is carrying Nika, but you can book directly online. I came away with 21 Best of the Maldives candidates (and some of the more unusual ones ever) so there are plenty of reasons to venture into this quirky little slice of tropical Venice.

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 7: Gangehi

Gangehi tour

Two things I personally love about the Maldives – tiny islands and great snorkelling. Gangehi comes up top trumps in both categories.

Despite Gangehi’s tiny size, you won’t feel claustrophobic. Not only are the rooms extra spacious with very high ceilings, the water facing doors slide open up 7 feet wide bringing the inside out and outside in. Even the beds themselves are a commodious 7 foot wide.

The décor is a distinctive Rocky Mountain cabin chic with stained wood and slate throughout in spacious (especially for a 4 star property) chalet villas. Sort of Komandoo villas amped up a bit. The villas were designed by a Swiss architect brought in by the original Swiss owner who copied the homes of ancient Maldivian nobles.

Some Maldive purists might be put off by the wooden walkways throughout, ie. no interior sand paths, but they do lend a distinctive Japanese garden feel especially with the well tended foliage.

Like Bathala, another gem previously hidden away in the German and Italian markets, Gangehi is now increasingly available in the UK and beyond. Kuoni is offering it in the UK, and they also offer direct booking on their website. Kuoni has an offer for £1,725 for a week of full board which is very competitive to the 5 star properties that Gangehi rivals in many respects.

I came away with 10 “Best of the Maldives” candidates and a great option for another diminutive island with a great house reef and stylish accommodation.

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 6: Bathala

Bathala tour

Going from Halaveli to Bathala is like leaving the striking, smart, fashionable head girl to date the wild petite one in ripped jeans, simple tshirt and a smoking hot bod.

Bathala is an increasingly rare breed known as the Maldivian 3 star resort. Do not fear. Bathala has all the true essentials – strong air conditioning, outdoor shower, ample bed, tasty food, and a clean room. There is just no spa, no fitness centre, no water sports, no tennis court, no TVs, no interior design (pink floors + robin’s egg blue wall + burnt orange bedspread). There is not even a Bathala sign. We took our tour photo above standing in front of the resort instead. Yes, you heard me right. ‘The resort’. You can see the entire resort (save the individual villas) in that shot.

But what it lacks in man-made infrastructure and decoration on the inside, it more than makes up for with an overabundance of natural beauty outside. Whether above or below the ocean’s surface, its charms are the first, last and only thing on the daily agenda. Not everyone’s cuppa tea. But some people’s absolute fantasy.

The sea itself is a few feet away from the main sitting area (The picture above was shot from someone standing in the water). And the coral starts just a few feet in from the water’s edge. And the drop off is only a few dozen metres beyond that (or you can jump right on to it from the rear jetty).

What a house reef it is. You can see why resorts from all around bring dive and snorkel excursions here to experience it. Lori and my snorkel was the best we have had in two years (since “Shark Week” at Kurumba). We’ve logged the big sightings on Snorkel Spotter already. We also dived the house reef and saw not only even more vibrant soft and hard coral and colourful fish, but also our first octopus since 2004!

Bathala is primarily sold in the Italian and more recently German markets, but in other countries you can book direct. From September through April, the resort is pretty near 100% occupancy so you would be hard pressed to squeeze into one of its 50 villas. But from May through August, it is less in demand and you have a real chance for a bargain opportunity to experience authentic paradise.

For old-school Maldives aficionados who bemoan the escalating gentrification of the resorts, Bathala is a dream holdout from a nostalgic time. A gem of old school Maldives. For anyone on a budget or who appreciates the purity, rush to Bathala (preferably in the off season), before this treasure gets buried under a revamp of inlaid marble and overwater massage rooms.

Back to the metaphorical…Some exotic single malt whiskeys are brewed in a simple, remote wood hut on a isolated Scottish isle and they pack a taste that smacks you around the face with gritty genuine uniqueness that is the unadorned intoxicating spirit of the place. That is Bathala.

 

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 5: Constance Halaveli

Constance Halaveli tour

It’s very easy to be different and new, but very difficult to be better.” — Jonathan Ive

If John Ive designed a resort, it would be Constance Halaveli. Elegant style that eschews gimmicks, tawdry frills or garish excess. The fundamentals done “just right”. It was no surprise to find an innovative interactive television in each room driven (a strong “Best of the Maldives” candidate) by an Apple TV box.

I had been looking forward to seeing Constance Halaveli since it was commended to me by the previous tourism minister who said is was one of her favourites. She commented on the exquisiteness of the villa rooms modelled on dhoni boat shapes and its overall panache.

The 5-star category in the Maldives has become a bit of an arms race as resorts try to outdo each other with the latest underwater feature or doting butler service. But Constanve Halaveli shows how you can deliver flair simply and unpretentiously. Like Julia Child perfecting a poached egg.

Some people have high standards for quality and style, but are put off by fussy service and OTT offerings. Constance Halaveli is the place for them. It ticks every box except for house reef (and what you lose in easy off-beach snorkelling you gain in the richness of excursion sites in the Ari atoll).

No nonsense bliss.