Best of the Maldives: Experience Passport – KIHAA

KIHAA - experience passport

The joke is that the entire Brexit campaign was primarily to get “Blue” passports for the Brits (the traditional colour for British passports until they joined the EU and the passports became burgundy coloured). Well then the British will love the alluringly azure blue “Experience Passport” by Kihaa Maldives.

I always appreciate when properties make something special out of the ordinary. Most resorts simply print out information sheets left in binders or folders in the room. These hard copy versions are increasingly being replaced by digital catalogues of info, Kihaa has developed a “hand-held” guide with a more retro inspiration. Like a proper passport, just the right size for a pocket. It includes:

  • Map of the Island
  • Floors plans for all the room types
  • Index of services, with hours, etc.
  • Restaurant pages
  • And other information about the area and resort

KIHAA - experience passport 2

Best of the Maldives: Bubble Escape – Amilla

Amilla - bubble escape 1

The Amilla Bubble Escape is the ultimate indulgence in the best of both worlds – indoors and outdoors. The two worlds of natural splendour and sheltered creature comforts.

Lori and I adore spending time outdoors 24 hours a day in the Maldives. The obvious sun-bathing and lounging by the pool during the day. But also, star-gazing at the Milky Way swashed sky and looking for falling stars (during our Amilla stay, we hit the jackpot with a clear sky and a barrage of meteors that were flying by at a rate of about 3 per minute). Finally, we love to fall asleep with the sensation of the gentle ocean breezes wafting across us and the sounds of the water lapping the shallows beneath us.

But such al fresco devotion comes with compromises. Most villas’ loungers have cushions not quite as comfy as proper bed mattresses (sometimes you only get the narrow loungers and have to push two together). And if you get surprised by a late night squall, then you are awakened by literally a splash of water on the face and a mad scramble to get inside. And of course, there is no AC so some nights it is uncomfortably hot and humid, while others it can be downright chilly.

The Bubble Escape lets you intimately experience the sights and sounds in 360 degrees with all in the comfort of a queen-sized bed surrounded by all sorts of handy things like treats, drinks, books, etc. But the luxury doesn’t stop at inside the bubble. Amilla has moved it to its own little private beach-side nook behind the spa. The outside area includes a sink, table for eating (we had dinner and breakfast served to us there), a Maldivian-style swing.

When Amilla first came out with the “Bubble Tower”, I obviously just had to write about it as it was so unique and curious. But the resort has now updated the concept and added a number of new features which make it a more than a feature and turns it into a true experience.

We arrived at the spa mid-afternoon where they gave us a tour of the facilities and the various features of the Bubble (you have access to the spa bathroom and showers throughout your stay in the Bubble). After settling in, the therapists arrived to give us a waterside couples massage. We were then so chilled that we relaxed in the hammock and swing there just swaying and enjoying the seascape vista. In the early evening, the chef and server arrived to prepare our dinner over a beach BBQ served at a waterside table. We lingered over our remaining wine until deciding to retire to our Bubble bed for some star-gazing. We drifted off to sleep under the swish of falling stars shooting across the heavens. In the middle of the night, we were awoken by an unusual pluck-pluck-pluck sound of raindrops hitting the clear plastic. It was a soft, rhythmic patter which sent us quickly back to sleep (grateful for our polyethylene protection).

The Bubble Escape rates right up there with my two other favourite “Wow” types of features in the Maldives: (a) underwater rooms, and (b) discovery centres. All three provide a striking fresh window to this enchanting paradise.

Postscript: The only resort encourages people to “switch off” during their Bubble Escape. When we went, we decided that the only ipads allowed were “eye pads” (see photo at bottom).

Amilla - bubble escape 7

Amilla - bubble escape 2

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Amilla - bubble escape 3

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Tour 17 – 2020 Tour Review

Tour 2020 sum

We didn’t think we would pull off a research tour in the write-off year of 2020, but as mentioned, when the pandemic settled a bit and travel restrictions eased in the autumn, some compelling offers were available to entice people back onto airplanes and over to far flung destinations that had the virus more under control (like the Maldives). While the trip was indeed a bit more complicated than usual and beset with some inconveniences, they were in no way overwhelming and certainly worth it to be able to escape to some joy and paradise. In fact, the journey just seemed to take us back to a time when the level of difficulty we experienced before Maldives tourism had matured and the digital innovations streamlined so much of the travel process. In the end, most of the added steps and requirements simply added to the safety of travel and stay which provided the benefit of enhanced peace of mind during our visit.

We noted several notable changes in just over a year of absence:

· Safety – The measures introduce to protect against COVID are not just numerous but pervasive. Once in country and on the resort, they are more re-assuring than troublesome.

· Families – Families everywhere. When I first started the “Maldives for Families” vision. One of the things that struck me on our recent mini-tour in December was how family-centric the visitor base had become. I tried to find some stats, but age seems to be tracked only periodically. What I did find showed young visitors (under 24) growing from 8% in 2011 (https://webunwto.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/imported_images/36136/maldives_tourism_performancereport_for_2011.pdf) to 10% in 2015 (https://www.tourism.gov.mv/en/downloads/visitor_survey). If that segment is growing at 0.5% per year, in share it would be about 13% now. It does seem also that catering to families is the default now. The list of Adults Only properties is really the exclusive list (only about 20 of these). Then, there is a segment of Family Agnostic resorts which I would estimate to be about a dozen or so. These properties tend to be lower end properties who have few amenities and services in general. They have no problem with kids, but they just haven’t made any investments in a kids club or other features that are aimed particularly at kids. So that would be about 30 resorts out of 160 active one that are *not* especially family friendly making a catalogue of family friendly ones about 130 properties long.

· WhatsApp – The lion’s share of our service was provided by WhatsApp. As soon as you check-in, your “butler” (or whoever else is your point of contact), connects with you on WhatsApp. Every resort worked this way. And it was a revelation. No more calling reception, or looking for the right button on your room phone, or worrying about the time of day. Just send a WhatsApp message to the person looking after you and they respond immediately. It sounds like a simple introduction, and yet it made service provision seem to run that much more easily and slickly.

A final tip is that the Dhiraagu wifi in the departure area is a rip-off. Buying access isn’t cheap and the service is horrendous (the app is poor and the connection is weak).

Pandemic Paradise (just kidding!)

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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