Best of the Maldives: Garden Villas – Malahini Kuda Bandos

Malahini Kuda Bandos - garden rooms

Malahini Kuda Bandos could be described as the New Jersey of the Maldives – the affordable property Garden (Villa) State in the northeast of the country just across the harbour from the high rises of the local metropolis whose skyline rises out of the horizon with unsung touches of distinction in its own right.

The resort has more Garden Villas – 32 – than any other room category. In fact, more than any other resort except for Kuredu who does have a handful more, but also is an island literally ten times larger as well.

Our stay there was only the third time we had stayed in a garden villa. And the villas were the most modest of all the ones I had ever seen. Two story apartment blocks facing each other in tight proximity on the inside of the island. But the blueprint is a sensible way to get an optimal number of guests on a small island without spoiling too much of the beach and other common areas. As a result, like the residents of “Joisee”, visitors can find some of the lowest priced packages in the Maldives (especially when factoring in the low transfer cost being so close to Male). Maldives snobs might poo-poo anything less than a thatched roof private villa with ocean views, but they forget that such apartments are where many people on their beach holidays all over the world. These rooms just happen to be in the middle of an island paradise.

Best of the Maldives: Floating Furniture – Cocoon Maldives

Cocoon - floating furniture

At Cocoon Maldives, over-sized flamingos and indolent marine life aren’t only things floating around. The resort has infused the buoyancy of the surrounding waters throughout the property with furnishing that themselves seem to float like puppy black-tips skimming the surface.

  • The LAGO furniture floats on glass stands to highlight the lightness sensation that the Ocean water villa exudes, on the boundaries between the beach and the forest.”

Examples include bar tables, coffee tables, settees but most prominently the beds which have soft lights underneath them which amplify the illusion at night. A new meaning to the phrase “drift to sleep”.

Cocoon - floating furniture 2

Cocoon - floating furniture 4

Cocoon - floating furniture 3

Best of the Maldives: Shaved Ice Dessert – Grand Park Kodhipparu

The best buffets are the ones who turn use the format not for laying out food en mass, but instead for providing a bit of flash and sizzle in the food prep itself with special stations. Sort of a Chef’s Table brought out to the dining area. Grand Park Kodhipparu main restaurant, The Edge, features a number of distinctive stations (stay tuned), but my favourite was their Shaved Ice Dessert. An exotica concoction of nuts, ice cream, shaved ice and tapioca. I am a bit of a tapioca connoisseur (it was my favourite dessert when I lived in Togo, West Africa and still enjoy the American Royal Tapioca Pudding) so I especially appreciated this lively twist on a beloved ingredient. And the taste was sublime.

Best of the Maldives: Maldivian Female Apprentice Snorkel Guide – AaaVeee

AaaVeee - snorkel guide

One of our favourite parts of visiting the Maldives over so many years and working on it so regularly with the website are the many friends we have made from this paradise. One of my motivations for all the work (and money) I put into Maldives Complete, is that I feel more like a participant and more a part of this wonderful place rather than just a here-today-gone-tomorrow spectator with a credit card. This year’s tour in particular was full of reunions with old friends. And we had the chance to meet other fascinating individuals during our travels.

People like Thoyyibaa Ahmed at AaaVee. She is the Maldives’ first female resort snorkel guide. Well, I should say “snorkel guide apprentice”. She is still learning the details under the auspices of the guruVa dive centre. But she inspired us with her enthusiasm for this iconic activity in her home country where many women historically haven’t even learned to swim in the past.

Those gender biases are shifting you are now seeing more and more women entering into the activity both for fun and professionally. Women like Zoona Naseem who became the first female PADI instructor (working out the Male suburb Villimale) and many more like her as demonstrated by the recent Women’s Day Dive which attracted record numbers.

Maldives Complete had the opportunity to sit down with Thoyyibaa to learn about her quest to share this aquatic scenery with all guests…

  • What is your name?Thoyyibaa Ahmed
  • What atoll are you from?Male
  • What got you interested in being a snorkel guide?The ocean is my love. I first tried to dive, but I had health problems that did not allow me to dive. So then I choose to look at snorkeling. My best friend was a snorkel guide, but had to stop when she had a baby. She recommended that I try it.
  • What languages do you speak?Dhivehi and English mainly, but I am learning Italian and German. I am studying all the fish names. The names are very important.
  • What is the favourite thing you see snorkeling?Turtles.
  • When did you start learning to swim?Three months ago. It is my new experience. The dive master is teaching me. The first time I went in the water, I was very scared. If I am tired or weak, I will use a life jacket for safety. I am really grateful to AaaVeee for giving me this opportunity to learn to become a snorkel guide.
  • What do your friends and family think of your job direction? – My mother is very surprised because this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. All my family and friends are giving me their full support. I never give up. I keep trying. My mother is always asking questions about how it is going.
  • Who uses a snorkel guide? – Any guest really, but some guests come here alone and they need a buddy to accompany them.
  • Any advice for any other women interesting in snorkeling?Snorkeling is the best thing I have done. There is no reason to be scared. Women and girls who have not learned to swim should not be scared. You can do whatever you want. Don’t give up.

Best of the Maldives: Music Competition – Kandima

Kandima - music competition

Sights, spaces and now sounds. Kandima’s artistry pervades its island with a fresh approach that engages its guests and fans. Its artist studio is run by an up-and-coming local artist to produce fresh works as well as to collaborate with the guests themselves. And the same spirit of creative engagement is being applied to the resort soundscape with the Maldives first ever music competition:

  • The first ever ‘Music Boss Wanted! Competition’ invites aspiring music writers, composers, singers and DJs to submit a video to Kandima Instagram or Facebook for a chance to win an amazing US$7000 cash prize and a full-paid holiday to the new island destination – how Kool is that?! To enter the competition, the applicants must upload a short video of themselves singing, playing a musical instrument or DJing to Instagram or Facebook using the unique hashtags #KandimaMusic and #KMusicBoss…Then the TOP 10 shortlisted applicants will be picked, and their videos will be uploaded to Kandima Maldives blog, followed by the K’Music Boss announcement on 21st August 2018. The winner will get a chance to create the Oh-So-Kool playlist with eight tarcks, which will be officially launched during the resort’s grand launch of its new Pool Party Series on 15th November 2018. The K’Music boss will also be setting the K’Mood with their playlist on the resort’s hop on/hop off buses, in all the studios or villas, and during the super Kool events both locally and globally – as a K’Music Boss should!”

The entries to date that have been selected and can be sampled here.  But, *NEWS FLASH*, Kandima has extended the deadline to mid-September!  So anyone needing a bit more production time (or just finding out about the competition now) can get their creative juices going and join the jamboree.

Best of the Maldives: Rum – NIYAMA

NIYAMA Surf Shack 1

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” – Pirate diddy

Not just any rum bar (and not a “rumba”), but a Reggae Rum Bar at NIYAMA. Set up and run by rum aficionado Tony from Jamaica (via South Africa).  Perched on the beach at the reef edge, it is the ideal spot for landlubber’s to watch seadogs hang ten or watch sunsets with their favourite grog.

Of course, rum is the foundation of my favourite resort drink – the Pina Colada. The Surf Shark didn’t do a pina colada, but instead a slight variation on it called a “Llama Colada”. But its “Zombie” cocktail had one of my all-time favourite descriptions: “The King of the Surf Shak cocktails. Strictly one per person per night” (see photo at bottom). Of course, it was so intriguing, Lori had to have one. Tony’s favourite rum is the exclusive Diplomatico which took the guile of a swashbuckler to get to the Maldives.

Here are some of the rums on offer…

  • Ron Zacapa Centario
  • Havana Club
  • Pampero Aniversario
  • El Ron Prohibido
  • Ron Flor De Cana
  • Pyrat Rum XO Reserve
  • Clement Premier Canne Rhum
  • Clement Martinique
  • Diplomatico
  • Bacardi
  • Captain Morgan Jamaica Rum
  • Captain Morgan Spiced Rum
  • Captain Morgan Cannon Ball
  • Malibu
  • Caribbean Rum with Coconut Flavour
  • Plantation Rum
  • Meyers Rum Original Dark
  • Flor de Cana
  • Cachaça Agacana

Drinkin rum before 10.00am makes you a pirate, not an alcoholic” -Earl Dibbles JR

NIYAMA - Surf Shack 2


NIYAMA - Surf Shack 3

NIYAMA - Surf Shack 4

Best of the Maldives: Maldivian Tepanyaki – Makunudu

Makanudu - Maldives tepanyaki

Grill stations at buffets are often pretty standard fare. And Japanese-style Tepanyaki grills, that inject a bit of show into the prep, can be found at a good number of properties. But we were enchanted by what is probably best described as “Maldivian Tepanyaki” at Makunudu’s Maldivian Night. The chef was preparing “Maldivian Flat Bread Strings”, itself a dish I had never sampled in twenty years of coming to the Maldives.

The chef chops flat breads into very thin “strings” and fries them on the grill. Then some veg and spices are tossed on…with more rhythmic chopping. Finally, the whole mixture is topped with a fish or chicken. It was delicious and all prepared with a rhythmic show.

Turkish Airlines Update – Istanbul Airport

Tour - Turkish Airlines update

Turkish Airlines has been our go-to carrier when travelling to the Maldives from the UK in the warm months (when British Airways does not offer its direct service). I already posted a pretty comprehensive overview of the flight experience, but I didn’t mention much about the Istanbul hub (just that it had a few food outlets and relaxation areas). The Istanbul airport has come on massively in just the three years since.

From the UK from April through October, there is no direct service to the Maldives. So visitors have to choose from an array of stop-over options among the hub titans. Unless you want a bit of a detour for one of the Far East hubs (eg. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, or even Sri Lankan), the most prominent choices are the three battling for dominance as the crossroads between Europe and Asia – Turkish (Istanbul), Emirates (Dubai) and Qatar (Doha). Turkey has held the title for much of history as Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople has been the nexus where East meets West). And they are not going to yield that strategic position easily no matter who much oil money the upstarts on the Arabian peninsula have to throw at the battle.

Istanbul airport has long been a bit of a “Third World” facility with more brute force (sheer numbers of flights) behind it than elegance (compared to the flashy new constructions at Dubai and Doha). But Istanbul is slowly but steadily making improvements to turn itself into a world class airport. A profusion of cosmopolitan shops and trendy eateries have cropped up with Sbarro and Burger King edging aside the tired beef stew in the generic airport café, and Hugo Boss encroaching on the Turkish Delight stands. They have fixed most of the bottlenecks with security in the International Transfer section which used to mean long queues as x-ray machine in the middle of the night and the middle of your long journey.

The one aspect are that remains decidedly Third World are the restrooms. Packed with queues and horrid smells. Your best option is the ones at the lower level underneath the food court (somewhat cleaner and very few people).

That area is where you will also find some quite attractive “rest” options. The first is quite literally a “Rest Area”. It is two rooms (one for men and one for women) with dimmed lighting and thick, padded mats on the floor (like you used to nap on in kindergarten). For those who couldn’t sleep bolt upright in the long-haul first leg and have a long lay-over, it is an oasis of comfort and repose. Free of charge too.

The whole area by the Food Court end of the terminal is also filled with a selection of 5 lounges to provide a range of transfer creature comforts. The first option is to check whether any of your frequent flyer status or bank/credit cards provide you with free access (one of the lounges is the HSBC lounge with free access for its premium card holders).

For the past couple of years, we have opted for the Premiere Lounge. It has sizeable space including two separate areas where one is more quiet than the other. It is the most extensive and with the widest range of amenities including a modest buffet, soft drinks, beer, pretty good coffee machine. It is also one of two lounges to have a shower (which I found refreshing after my 7 hours flight from Male) as well as a gym (!) for those who are really keen. The cost is 69 Euros for a “membership” which provides a day use with a guest (so 35 euros per person)

Note that if you plan to re-charge your electronics devices at Istanbul, the power outlets at European (if you go to Premier Lounge, they have an adaptor they will loan you).

Tour 9 Review

Tour Review

Another annual pilgrimage to the sacred destination of our dreams concludes. The sunrises, snorkel spottings, villa photoshoots, property tours, transfers, treatments, pina coladas, sunsets and star-gazing has finished. Now begins the remote re-living of our time cataloguing the photos, editing the videos, transcribing the notes, emailing the follow up questions, updating the database and reliving the our time there from afar.

Here are the vital statistics of Maldives Tour #9 (Complete-Ly by the Numbers)…

  • Resorts Visited – 8
  • Days of Travel – 12
  • Seaplane Rides – 4
  • Average Air Temp – 34 degrees
  • Average Water Temp – 29 degrees (gulp…comfy for us but less so for the poor coral polyps)
  • Rain – 1 full day in aggregate (most of one day and a few showers on a couple others)
  • Snorkel Spottings – 15
  • Dives: 3
  • Room Profile Photos Added – 56
  • Dive Charts Added – 34
  • Best of the Maldives pieces identified – 52

This whirlwind exploration of Dhaalu anew, Lhaviyani renewed and assorted undiscovered corners of Kaafu brings our lifetime total of resorts seen to 91. According to everyone we have spoken to, this puts on the top of the table as world leading visitors (Though Michaela Reisser is chasing us down. If she catches us, I might have to refine our bragging rights to being the “amateurs”, or true aficionado, with the most visits as she is a travel professional).

Tour 2018 total summary

Despite our years for Maldives adventures, this trip still provided a number of “firsts”. In addition to the slew provided by NIYAMA (First Entire Day of Rain, First complementary bottle of champagne…actually drunk. First Bath, First in-room movie), here are a few other firsts…

  • No Shoes – From the very outset. This trip was our first literally “no shoes” visit to the Maldives. We typically change into our flip flops at the first resort and don’t pack them again until we are heading back to the airport. But this year, we actually wore our flip-flops to the airport.
  • Underwater Dinner – We have had an underwater massage, underwater night show, underwater cocktails, but we have never sat down for a dinner.

An interesting note is that despite 20 years of habit and ritual, there were a number of things that we distinctly didn’t do. Not really intentionally, but it just sort of happened

  • Swim in a pool, even a private pool dip – The key reason why we didn’t avail ourselves of our private pools when we had them (and increasingly common amenity) is that the previous week had a lot of rain so the pools were quite chilly. Usually, they are baking in the sun and are a relaxing tepid temperature, but I think the ocean (sadly) was warmer than the pools most of the time.
  • See as many things snorkelling – The coral damage of the rising ocean temperatures exacerbated by the recent El Nino as well as the COTS infestation has been well reported, but this trip was the first time we seemed to see less marine life on the coral-denuded reefs. Of course, that is the obvious knock-on effect to coral devastation. We didn’t see but a single reef shark snorkelling (the puppy sized ones still frequent the shallows) and the fish soup just seemed a bit thinner.
  • See a great sunset – One of knock-on effects to the July travel, with its variable partly cloudy skies and passing rainstorms is that there is really too many low lying clouds to allow for a great sunset. Their low altitude means they reflect less of the sun when it dips below the horizon. Also, the excessively thick collection of clouds stand between you vantage point blocking the sun itself as it sets in the distance.

Riding back on the speed boat transfer to Male airport, I mused about a few reflections and general observations about the overall tour…

  • Intimacy with the ocean – The ocean dominates everything. In contrast, when we were at a similarly tiny island in Indonesia, you still felt the distinctly “on land” and surrounded by as much land as ocean. Some Maldives purists don’t like water villas claiming they are not native (an invasive architectural species from Bali) not to mention that constructing them can be environmentally disruptive. But I feel that they are in keeping with the essence of this ocean intimacy.
  • Value is Back – So many people have bemoaned the gentrification of the Maldives resort neighbourhood. It seemed that everyone favourite 3-4 star resort was being relaunched as a glitz super-deluxe property at several times the price. The whole guesthouse movement has replenished the stock of rooms at the budget-priced bottom end. But also, a slew of new openings have targeted the value-priced middle market in recent years. Increased ease of operation with Maldives tourism infrastructure, local skill sets and know-how, supply chain has made is easier and cheaper for resorts to build and operate which will help temper holiday inflation.
  • Salt Shakers – Why does any resort feature these? They never work. Even when a few grains of rice have been mixed in the salt. I guess there is a potential hygiene issue with using salt cellars instead if everyone put their fingers into the well, but they could use little spoons (which is the mannerly way to use a salt well).
  • Mother and Child Reunions – One final observation is that during our tour we encountered several single women travelling with a young son. Is this some sort of highly specialised niche that the Maldives could cater to?
  • Participant, Not Spectator – One of the reasons why I do Maldives Complete, is because I am more of an “active participant” than than “passing spectator” in this amazing part of the world. I’m that way with other parts of my life like sports where I play many sports to a high standard, but don’t really watch that much. This trip reinforced that dimension as the first half of the tour seemed like a reunion of old friends – Bunyamin, Aima, Nazeeh, Mahudhee.

While it all seems to many like a glorious holiday, each of these trips is quite a bit of work. It is actually more work these days to get material because the Maldives Complete website is more complete very year. Resorts do a better job of publishing more information to the web, and what they don’t publish, their guests share amply on social media. Still, the visits are invaluable to identify the smallest and least conspicuous of details as well as to continue to build relationships with the people behind this paradise.

Lori and I have a set ritual that we perform with every single property in order to get the maximum benefit from the visit:

  1. Take picture in front of resort sign (for the resort overview post).
  2. Take island tour (site inspection) seeking out material and taking photos for…
    1. Best Of the Maldives pieces
    2. Room Type profiles (and sometimes the Resort Profiles as well)
    3. TripAdvisor and site followers requests for information
  3. Visit the dive center to find missing dive sites and dive charts.
  4. Snorkel the housereef.
  5. Sunset pina colada (this one isn’t that much work).

Then, when we leave the resort, the work isn’t finished as we still have to…

  1. Write and send a follow up email to resort to request additional material and details.
  2. Load the material and photos onto the site (with necessary formatting).
  3. Load house reef sightings into Snorkel Spotter.
  4. Write and post Tour Report.
  5. Post TripAdvisor Forum post.

After this tour, our path across the Maldives is shown below in a map of where we have stayed (all the green stars are places visited and all the yellow ones are all the others which are on our bucket list). Next year we visit Raa atoll which is the last atoll we have not yet visited which has more than two resorts on it. We can’t wait!

Tour - map of visited resorts 2018

Maldives Tour 2018– Malahini Kuda Bandos

Malahini Kuda Bandos - tour 2018

Malahini Kuda Bandos is one of the best bargains in the Maldives. With some promotions, you can find rooms just over $100. And that’s for a proper resort. Not a guesthouse. Not a hotel. The rooms are no Ritz Carlton and the restaurant is not Alain Ducasse, but it is the Maldives.

And it includes a number of first class features. The island is a gem with some of the softest sand on its beaches as you will find anywhere. Pancakes are lighter and fluffier than anywhere in UK and the buffet also includes Red Velvet Croissants (who knew those were even a thing). With an extensive buffet you can find something you like a lot. You are getting the same omelette, porridge, fresh fruit that you get a 5-star property. It has a very accessible housereef with a nice drop off (though it has also suffered the bleaching that has affected all Maldives reefs). The island is a convenient 15 minute transfer from Male, but you are far enough away from the capital that you don’t feel like the urban island is breathing down your neck, but instead is off in the distance on the horizon.

The rooms are simple, but they are new, fresh and attractive styling. The majority of rooms are Garden Villas which are not everyone’s idea of a tropical holiday (being in a block of apartments in the centre of the island), but they have their dividends. The underwhelming room forced us out of the room to go to the Bluu bar and enjoy a wonderful evening and morning by the beach. The obvious key attraction is their price. The bedrooms even an extra sleeper lounger for a child to stretch your room cost even further.

One final, observation that I’m not sure how to interpret: a very large proportion of the guests were two females. Wondering if I was just getting a skewed sample that was adding to a confirmation bias, I did a count of tables at breakfast, and yes, half the tables were occupied by two women. Curiously, Lori has been plotting over WhatAp during our trip for the dream of all her girl friends coming to the Maldives for a girlie trip. With a group of friends, the digs don’t have to be fancy, and you do need to sort of cater to the lower common budget so everyone can manage the trip. So maybe there is something in Malahini Kuda Bandos being a girlie escape destination.