Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 10: Anantara Kihavah Villas

Anantara Kihavah tour

Mary Poppins of Maldives resorts. ‘Practically perfect in every way.’ That’s Anantara Kihavah.

There are very few resorts that tick as many boxes as Kihavah does. Some islands are great, and some resorts are great. Finding great islands with great resorts on them is by definition rarer.

The crème de la crème resorts tick a number of key boxes for service, food, styling, etc., but the “Super Premiums” (aka “5+ Stars”) take all of the criteria a step further. Not only that, but they also have one special, added requirement – the “wow” item. The “wow” is not just an abstract effect of quality and style, but it is a very tangible thing that is the first thing you brag about when you get home. In the Maldives, the most common “wow” is an underwater feature, but it can be something like a marine discovery centre or some other distinctive experience.

The Kihavah “wow” is its underwater ”Sea” restaurant. In many respects, it surpasses the iconic one at Conrad. Conrad’s Ithaa restaurant is in the lagoon, while Kihavah’s Sea is perched on the precipice of its house reef drop-off. And what a drop off it is. Plunging straight down for 30 meters into the deep blue abyss. Novice snorkelers, unconfident swimmers, and of course land-lubbers don’t usually get to experience the aquatic thrill of the reef drop off, but Kihavah’s dining portal give it a drop-off everyone can experience.

And that’s where the crème de la crème islands star. With a vibrant and easily accessible house reefs. Kihavah has a particularly fine house reef which you enter straight from the jetties. In addition to its reef, I was quite fond of Kihavah’s modest size. I like the smaller islands that have an intimate and isolated feel to them. But the frosting the cake was Kihavah’s dazzling circumambient beach. One broad, soft, white strip of sand that encircles the entire island. As my wife regularly reminds me, such beauty is not without effort and Kihavah takes considerable effort to groom and primp. But instead of beach defenses (like unsightly groynes and seawalls), instead Kihavah lets nature take its course and then each year they rebuild the section of the beach (typically by the pool) which gets eroded.

Kihavah scores more “outstanding” marks in more areas than all but a few places I have visited in the Maldives. No surprise that I came away from my visit with 19 new “Best of the Maldives” candidates.

A must candidate for any Maldives connoisseur.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 9: Dusit Thani

Dusit Thani tour

It’s all about the experience at Dusit Thani.

All of the Maldives has great snorkeling. Probably the best in the world. But how do you turn that into an exceptional experience? First, you start with a great house reef (one of the best in the Baa atoll). Second, you add exceptional excursions. In the Baa atoll, this is going to Hanafaru Bay where you can snorkel with manta rays. In fact, just before our arrival the Dusit Thani folks had been on an excursion where there were dozens all over the place. And you don’t stop there, but you also add a truly inspired snorkeling programme orchestrated by your top flight dive centre (stay tuned for details in upcoming Best of the Maldives).

All of the Maldives resorts have fine food. With fresh reef fish in the surrounding sea and a range of tropical fruits in plentiful supply, add savory traditional curry recipes and it’s not difficult to put together a delectable meal. Add toes wiggling in warm sand, a canopy of bright stars overhead, and a serenade of gently lapping water on the shore and any meal becomes a stunning experience. But wheel in a talented chef and then a whole host of gustatory delights take the meals to another level.

Eating at Dusit’s “Sea Grill”, my expectations were modest. I was expecting the conventional array of basic meats and fish lovingly flame cooked. Instead, I found an extensive menu of taste treats that would impress hard core foodies in London’s West End never mind on some remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

One of my acid tests for great cuisine is the soup (I’ve written a number of times about two of my favourites – bisque and gazpacho). These are the dishes where diverse flavours can be melded into a unique taste sensation. My first challenge at Dusit was choosing. Instead of a normal “soupe du jour”, I faced a several enticing options. So I did the obvious thing being a soup fan…I ordered them all. I’m not sure I have enough data and samples to go on to award Dusit a “Best of the Maldives” for soup, but it certainly was the most appetizing that I had ever enjoyed in the Maldives.

Soups and snorkeling are just two examples of Dusit Thani’s meticulous efforts to provide guests with an experience as distinctive as the paradise they are visiting. I came away from my memorable stay with 14 candidates for Best of Maldives



Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 8: Royal

Royal Island tour

Budget Baa.

One of the stops I most anticipated was a visit to Royal Island. I knew very little about Ayada, but I knew nothing about Royal. Of all of the resorts I was visiting, it was the only resort that I hadn’t written anything about. And yet, when I mentioned the island to Maldives experts, they would say “Oh yeah, fine island.”

I must say, for everyone bemoaning the escalating prices of the Maldives 5-stars, this well-appointed 4-star property would tick all the basic boxes for a superb Maldives getaway. For rooms, it has smart décor with comfortable air conditioning and outdoor bathroom. For food, it serves fresh reef fish and dishes cooked with local curry recipes including tropical fruit and a range of options. For activities, it offers a stocked sports centre,. For snorkeling, it has an extensive, easily accessible house reef that wraps around the entire island. For diving, it hosts a centre run by Dutch group Delphis diving which is particularly professional and helpful. And this is all on offer for less than half the cost of most 5-stars.

Being in the Baa atoll makes Royal especially distinctive. The entire atoll has been designates a marine bio-reserve to help protect the rich sea life there especially the abundant manta rays. The draw to this part of the Maldives may have contributed to this neighbourhood upscaling significantly so that it is nearly all 5-star properties and Royal is an opportunity to experience on a more most budget.

I even came away from our visit with a few “Best of the Maldives” candidates.

What’s not to like?

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 7: Soneva Fushi

Soneva Fushi tour

Soneva Fushi , a love story. The resort is a heartfelt expression of love for the Maldives by the founders and owners Eva and Sonu Shivdasani. The very name “Soneva” is like two sweethearts’ names carved inside a heart, “Sonu + Eva”. They spend the majority of their time living on the island themselves, in one of the more modest two-bedroom villas, despite owning a number of other exquisite properties.

Soneva has long been a trend setter, not a fad follower. No glass floors, no water villas, no pool. The artistry of the execution is led by the Creative Director Eva. They’ve created a funky barefoot chic vibe that is imbued into every nook and cranny.

Love for guests.  Soneva meticulously tailors that aesthetic to each guest. Everything on offer is an option customized to the individual. When you arrive at the airport lounge, the hostess has you try a number of salt salts and soaps so that your villa would be supplied with your favourite. One of my pet peeves of spa treatments is when they ask where you would like the therapist to focus and then the therapist does a fairly standard treatment. I told the therapist to focus on head, neck and legs…and that was the only areas he really ever touched. I’ve never had a massage therapist so meticulously follow my brief.  Usually buffets are an exercise in quantity and quality. Like its former sibling Gili Lankanfushi, Soneva’s buffet food is near gourmet quality. Not just for a few items, but for most. For example, at their egg station they had prawns as an option for omelets. Now why don’t all resorts have this luxury ingredient on their egg stations (and crab meat too, by the way)?

Love for the unconventional.  “Sea level” is one of the defining aspects of the Maldives. Nothing, not the landscape elevation nor the seascape depth deviates much from the horizon of the sea. Still, I quite welcome the few places which provide a more vertical perspective on this paradise. Sea plane rides, mocktails at Traders Hotel “high-rise” in Male, and the occasional two story structure on a resort. Well, the majority of structures on Soneva – The villas, the spa, the signature restaurant, the observatory – are two stories which lend a more three-dimensional contour to the island.

Love for the planet.  If Park Hyatt Hadahaa is eco-obsessed, Soneva is eco-maniacal. Their reclamation and recycling area covers nearly an acre. They also have a solar panel farm that provides 3% of their electricity with aspirations to build it to 50%.

The combination of a (a) environmental, (b) vertical, and (c) family focus (they are building one of the most stunning kids clubs in the Maldives) makes the entire experience feel like you are in a real life production of Swiss Family Robinson. If the Robinson family hadn’t been rescued, but instead they stayed on their island and built it into a sustainable utopia. There are tree houses everywhere. Peg-in-hole door locks, coconut door closers, tree branch toilet roll holders. They should write a Buzzfeed article “27 Eco-Hacks for your Resort” (eg. use old jars with sand as table candle sconces). Gilligan’s Island if everyone on the Minnow were Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Powell III.

As a General Manager myself, I am intrigued not just by environmentally friendly sustainability, but by business sustainability. So many resorts have come and gone over the years and yet Soneva Fushi goes from strength to strength. The key to their success here is reinvestment. They seem to constantly be refreshing and adding to every part of the island. The villas, the offerings, the décor, the supply chain, and most critically the staff.

Having written more about Soneva Fushi than any other resort that I hadn’t yet visited and the resort commanding a high profile in lifestyle and travel press, I wondered what could be said that hasn’t already been said? Yet, I came upon “Best of the Maldives” potentials as dense as its lush vegetation. I found 4 ‘Best of’ subjects just in the Soneva airport lounge. As it turns out, over my short stay I uncovered 42 potential “Best of the Maldives” topics. Combined with the 22 already posted, Soneva Fushi tops the “Best of” league table with a stunning 64. But, it sort of seems like Soneva has an infinite supply of Best of the Maldives distinctions. Not only did I come across one every time I turned around, it’s clear that the resort has a whole parade of innovations perpetually coming down the pike. Stay tuned.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 6: Jumeirah Dhevanafushi

Jumeirah Dhevanafushi tour

When I visited Jumeirah Vittaveli last year, we were discussing potential superlatives for the “Best of the Maldives” section. The marketing manager asserted that Jumeirah Dhevanafushi was the “Most Romantic” resort in the Maldives. It was not the first time I had heard such an overwhelmingly ambitious claim (eg. Velassaru, Baros). I asked what makes it so much better. Do the sunsets glow more, do the palms wave more languidly, are the ocean blues bluer? ‘Best of the Maldives’ is necessarily the definitive arbiter of such distinctions, but it does do its research and look to have something tangible to for a ‘Best Of’ post to hang its hat on.

The marketer didn’t relent. She pointed to the biggest beds in the Maldives (okay, that is pretty cool and could contribute to some major romance not least of which is providing some acreage between a couple for snoring or tossing and turning). Then, she added that the island is shaped like a heart (well, maybe an anatomical heart, but not so much the iconic shape). I’m not convinced that it is THE most romantic resort in the Maldives (just like I don’t think that there is a “Best Resort” in the Maldives), but it certainly puts forth a compelling case.

What I will concede after a couple of pretty astonishing days there is that Dhevanafushi is a place where fantasies come true. Again, that might sound like a bunch of review palaver, but hear me out. I have the evidence to prove my case…

  • Octopus – I have been looking for one on a house reef for 13 years. Ever since we saw one snorkeling on Coco Palm Dhuni Kholu house reef, I’ve dreamed of seeing another one of these intriguing but shy creatures who are the world champion hide-and-seek players. Like Babe Ruth’s famous called shot, the staff pointed out the favourite hang-out of their house reef resident octoped and there he was when we went snorkeling (though we passed right by him the first time). Anyone who wants to spy one of these elusive creature curiosities, Dhevanafushi is the place to go.
  • Dolphins – Who doesn’t have a dream to ‘swim with dolphins? Not only did we see dolphins every day in Gaafu Alifu, but the dolphins swam by us during our dive from Dhevanafushi. Even the dive master was bowled over by how close they came.
  • Beach dinner – When we started coming to the Maldives, beach dining was an anomaly. People ate in established restaurants. We would ask if we could move our table onto the beach and the ever gracious Maldivians would always oblige. Dining with the sand in our toes, the stars above and the surf to our side is one of our biggest thrills. Dhevanafushi is one of the few resorts which features “in beach” dining. Not “on beach”. But in beach. They literally dig your dining table and settee out of the sand. Fantastic.
  • Beds. The beds in Dhevanafushi are bigger than some bedrooms I have slept in. You could spend days and never leave the bed (that would contribute to a romantic vibe). During the day, reading and hanging out with Lori was like being in our own little bed fort. During the night, my 6’4” frame could stretch out to my heart’s content.
  • Beach House. Lori especially has fantasized about owning a beach house. Why own a beach house when you can come to a place like this? The taxes, community charges, maintenance and utilities would be more than your stay here. While there were plenty of things on offer, the accommodation is so comfortable that you are happy just to hang out ‘at home’ in your villa, taking a dip in the pool or the ocean, lying in the sun, or doing totally nothing. For a couple of days, we felt we were living the dream of residing in our own little beach house.

Welcome to Fantasy Island.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 5: Ayada

Ayada tour

Exotic fusion. Some of the most exciting wines are blends. Some of the most delectable drinks are cocktails, and the most inspired cuisines are fusion concoctions. Ayada fuses two exotic ingredients – the tropical paradise of the Maldives with the storied aesthetic of Turkey – for an exquisitely unique resort. Appropriately enough, Istanbul has a millennia-old tradition of melding various cultures including being the nexus where East meets West.

Ayada is discovery that reminded me of a trip to see a dear friend in France. After an evening of appreciating a broad selection of wines from the region, he goes down to the furthest corner of the cellar and retrieves a most rare bottle that he saves for only the most appreciative connoisseurs. It is a unique chateau blend of grapes making for indescribable taste. It was like someone recognized that I was a particularly keen connoisseur of Maldives resorts and went and fetched this exquisite one for me to sample.

“Ayada”, which means “Moon Island” in Turkish, is a high-end 5-star. Impeccably executed from the coherently themed décor to the meticulous attention to detail and the gourmet quality cuisine on offer. It is another of those resorts (like Huvafenfushi, Soneva Fushi, Nika) who (not unlike my motivation with Maldives Complete) are the product of someone overcome with inspiration by the Maldives. The resort is the product of the owner and developer Ahmet Aydeniz’s affection. He discovered this part of the world and set out on a mission to build a great property befitting of its location in paradise.

I came away from my visit with 17 Best of the Maldives contenders and a whole new slant on the Maldivian experience.

Cennete ho? geldiniz

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 4: Park Hyatt Hadahaa

Park Hyatt Hadahaa tour

As if to trumpet our arrival to one of the most eco-obsessed resorts in the Maldives, the very icon of environmental-friendliness – the dolphin – came out to greet us during our transfer to Park Hyatt Hadahaa. Not just a token welcome party, but a teeming hoard of spinner dolphins jumping, scudding and cruising up to the boat on all sides. I tried to count them, but gave up at 80.

Immediately, Hadahaa’s intimate connection with nature strikes you. The single central byway is completely shrouded from the tropical sun by a dense canopy of palm and other foliage. The resort lets the fallen fronds lay where they fall (most resorts will sweep this debris up) blanketing the surrounding undergrowth with a thick duvet of leaves. But it doesn’t seem unkempt in any way as the main path is clear and tidily edged. When you emerge on the beach, you sink ankle deep in powder white sand (the softest I’d walked since Maafushivaru).

The marquee nature attraction at Hahadaa is the house reef. Reputed to be one of the very best (certainly top 10), it didn’t take long before Lori and I donned our gear and leapt in to explore. Immediately, you could see the how it got its reputation. Hadahaa is one of the rare house reefs where the coral growth extends richly into the lagoon as well as in and amongst the water villas (lagoons and the water villas that are often built on them are often mostly expansive sandy beds). The drop off was readily accessible and teeming with both fish and coral. We came back across the lagoon on return to swim among the coral croppings there. Often such growth gives one the sense of a coral garden. Hadahaa was more like a coral jungle. In fact, a recent marine biology survey assessed that Hadahaa had over 100% coral on its reef. This mathematical anomaly results from the fact that a number of table corals had tumbled down the reef drop off and now there were literally corals growing on top of them. There were corals on top of corals.

General Manager Julian Moore explained why Hadahaa (and many of the other Gaafu Alifu islands) have such excellent reefs. The atoll is the biggest atoll not just in the Maldives, but in the world. It spans about 70 kilometers north to south and 50 kilometers east to west. It is also one of the deepest. This combination brings both a rich flow of nutrients while providing a buffer of protection from storms to islands and reefs inside the atoll.

Welcome to the jungle.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 3: Huvafenfushi

Huvafenfushi tour

Inspired. Huvafenfushi is one of the Maldives’ pioneers in inspired luxury. One of the founding fathers of the super deluxe experience where resorts try to concoct service, facilities, and experiences as jaw-droppingly heavenly as the destination itself.

Actually, Huvafenfushi’s island was our second visit to the Maldives as a family back in 1999. Back then it was called Nakatchafushi and we were drawn to it by its reputation for having one of the best house reefs in the Maldives. Since then Huvafenfushi burst onto the Maldive scene with a virtuosity of style and distinction that was acclaimed as one of the very best resorts not just in the Maldives, but in the world. As its esteem and reputation grew, its prominence on my bucket-list did as well.

When we arrived at our water villa, not only were we treated to the aquatic delights of tropical fish scampering about beneath us, but a quartet of terns were similarly diving and soaring feet away from our deck hoping to make a little sushi snack of those fish.

The marquee feature of the resort is the infamous Underwater Spa. I must confess that both Lori and I wondered what the point would be of creating one of the most spectacular views somewhere where you just end up lying face down with your eyes closed so you miss it all. Well, first of all, positioned under the table beneath the head rest is a mirror which is aimed right at the window so you do watch the fish swimming by. Secondly, the therapist asks you if you want to have your treatment interrupted if she spies something particularly interesting like a shark swimming by (yes, please!!). Finally, after your massage you are treated to tea and they have an expansive lounge bed set up by some of the windows so that you can linger in the glow of your massage watching the aquatic world drift by in front of you.

And frankly, the spa treatments are only the tip of the iceberg of some of the astonishing experiences Huvafenfushi have devised at that innovative sub-marine facility. Stay tuned for some of the 19 Best of the Maldives pieces I came away with from my visit. Combined with the 10 I have already posted, that puts Huvafenfushi up in the elite ranks of the ‘Best Of’ league table. Right where you would expect.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 2: Chaaya Island Dhonveli

Chaaya Island Dhonveli tour

Classic Maldives. Classic in a nostalgic sense. Before the underwater laundry rooms, the Chateau Margaux oatmeal and the hydrofoil transfers, this was the standard fare for the Maldives that people came from around the world to savour. Simple villas with outdoor bathrooms and thatched roofs, sandy paths weaving through lush tropical growth, and the magic of the Maldives maritime just feet away. No Michelin star dining, but tasty food with classic local curries and grilled reef fish, fresh and served with delectable sauces, not tired or overdone. No butlers, but kind and friendly staff always willing the lend a hand or give a smile.

These days, legions of people don’t even consider the Maldives for fears of mortgage busting prices. But in a few special properties such as Chaaya Island Dhonveli you can still relish paradise for a reasonable price tag. In particular its Garden villas are a relatively attractive option. Most ‘Garden’ villas on Maldives resorts are lower priced rooms reduced because they are tucked away in the inside of the island shrouded by foliage from any ocean view. But the Dhonveli “Garden” villas are right on the water for the most part.

Another budget buster for families are…kids.  Yes, in general, but more specifically bringing them on vacation.  Somewhat manageable when they are toddlers and resorts offer considerable discounts with them staying in your room.  Dhonveli offers a number of Family villas where children up to 12 can stay.  The fact is that most Dhonveli rooms have day beds as part of their furnishings and the resort has a considerable supply of beds it can wheel into rooms.  So most of their rooms could accommodate a child or two without having to purchase and extra villa if the resort is willing and able to accommodate.

Dhonveli is like that delectable vin de table you get served at a rustic auberge in the French countryside. It might not be vintage Petrus, but it slakes your thirst with unadulterated authenticity.

I came away from our visit with 4 Best of the Maldives pieces.

Maldives Tour 2014 – Day 1: Male Arrival

Maldives Complete Tour 5 Male arrival

Tour #5 begins. I’ve set off on my 5th tour, our 13th trip to the Maldives overall. After this tour, we will have visited 55 resorts in total. The focus of this journey across paradise is the Gaafu Alifu (first time) as well as Baa atoll (we have toured here before but there are a number of new resorts as well as a couple we missed last time).

Gaafu Alifu, it turns out, is the world’s largest atoll. It has really come to life in recent years with a number of premium resort developments. It is known to have dive sites that rival the famous Ari atoll.  It is also primarily accesses via a domestic flight (instead of a seaplane or speedboat).  Some people are put off by seaplanes – they are very noisy and they are smaller which can make people ancy about flying more uneasy.  Unfortunately, seeing the Maldives from above, with this mottled tapestry of blues and greens is one of the great thrills of any visit.  If a more conventional flying machine makes this part of one’s journey a bit more enjoyable, then a domestic flight with a more ‘conventional’ aircraft might be just the thing.  It is a full 48 seater turbo-prop.  It flies a bit higher altitude than a seaplane, but you still a treated to a spectacular view of the Maldives seascape.

When I arrived, I spent my first day in Male catching up with a number of Maldivians who have been very helpful supporters of my work. I pitched up at the best “remote office” in the world at Traders Hotel with penthouse suite view, delicious food and drink, and a spa to freshen up before my meetings. I’ve yet to try the rooftop pool, though definitely on the Maldives bucket list.

I met with my longest standing industry supporter, Aminath Hudha who is working for a resort broker. She reports that business is strong across all areas (making her life very busy). I also met with people at the Ministry of Tourism who are enthusiastic about the site (so much so that they stayed quite late for our meeting on a Ramadan day when government offices shut at 2:00 pm).

Ramadan greetings, Maldives.