We have a family tradition that we started with our family trips to the Maldives years ago and now do with every significant trip somewhere. We also play it with people who visit us in the UK. We call it the “Interview Game” because it involves asking an extensive series of questions about the past week. It definitely draws on my journalism background.
I find that the key to a good interview is to ask questions about small details of the visit. Big questions like “happiest moment” or “biggest embarrassment” take too much thinking and can be fraught with sensitivities. But asking something like “What did you pack that you did not use?” does not take much intellectual or emotional energy. Just a simple reflection. Often with quite intriguing answers. That particular question gets to the heart of expectations which is something I love to probe after experiences.
Interviews are a common feature on Maldives Complete. And in fact, I’ve even featured a round of the Interview Game with one of my interviewees who we met up with at Amilla Maldives. So some of the more prominent questions are there. But I thought people would enjoy a comprehensive list to draw from so I’ve included a list of all my favourite questions below for you to go through at the end of your next trip wherever it takes you:
What did you pack that you didn’t use? B – A couple of dress shirts (I perspired less and was able to re-wear some of my favourites) L – A couple of dresses
What didn’t you pack that you wish you did? B – My spare Mac which would have been a better backup when my machine died and I had to use Lori’s less powered computer. L –Red filter for GoPro
What did you pack that you used the most? B – My business cards L –My plain white swimsuit cover-up.
What did you break or lose? B – My computer’s motherboard got a fault. L – Nothing
What food did you most enjoy? B – Vilu Reef’s poppadom shots (a revelation) L – Iru Veli’s Wagu beef MB6 at the beach dinner.
What was your favourite view? B – Iru Veli’s sandbank breakfast. L – Ailafushi’s underwater restaurant.
When were you the most nervous/anxious? B – When my computer died. L – First dive as we hadn’t done a dive for a over a year.
What surprised you most about the destination? B – The sparkling phosphorescent plankton blue stars on Vilu Reef’s beach. L –The welcome at Vilu Reef and Iru Veli (we’ve never experienced anything like it).
What most disappointed you? B – Baglioni’s Kids Club. L – Ailiafushi’s lack of house reef.
Name a word you learned in Dhivehi? B – “Boli” means “shell” (from Dhawa Ihuru) L – “Iru” means “sun” (from Iru Veli)
Name a fun fact you learned about the place? B – Maldivian octopi are some of the shyest octopi in the world as they have many predators (especially nurse sharks). L – Two resorts connected (Lobigili and Ailafushi)
What would you do (if money and logistics were no object), if you had an additional day to spend? B – Spend a day doing nothing on the deck of our Iru Veli water villa with periodic dips in the pool (our trips are pretty busy so I tend to fall short on the indolence). L – Spend more time lounging in by the pool.
What tip would you give someone about to embark on a trip like yours? B – Don’t worry about the weather reports. L – Even in July if there is some forecasts of rain, it’s still warm so no need to bring a wrap or anything, And don’t bring nice shoes.
Our 20th Tour and now 116 resorts in the Maldives visited with the following additions:
Sun Siyam Vilu Reef
Sun Siyam Iruveli
Lobigili (day visit)
What struck me most about this visit was the increasingly palpable improvements in the country and the lives of its citizen who welcome us to visit their paradise. Maybe it was the new modern seaplane terminal. Maybe it was the maturing skyline of Hulhumale. But more likely it was the conversations with the Maldivians who shared not just a specifics of their enhanced lives, but did so in a very upbeat and optimistic tone.
The other funny historical shift has been in the disfunctional photographic behaviour of the guests. Years ago we found it curious and a bit sad that we were sitting at the sunset bar sipping our pina coladas surrounded by lots of lonely women abandoned by the SLR-toting husbands and boyfriends who were all clamouring to get the best sunset shot with their nifty point-and-click gadgetry. Now, we saw lots of lonely women wandering the resort with selfie stick in hand posing in all manner. Revenge of the SLR widows onto the new group of IG widowers? This observation is just one aspect of the tectonic shift in photography shaking up the digital content world. I didn’t really use my SLR for most of my shoots as the iPhone is just as good for most pictures where you are not trying to be artistic or need deep of field. Furthermore, I am taking and posting video material for “Best Ofs” than ever before (especially after this trip) which is much easier to shoot on an iPhone than an SLR.
Finally, a 1st world problem finally is being addressed as more resorts are using salt grinders in place of salt shakers which get perennially clogged.
Ailafushi is big in every way. Big in room number (270). The biggest underwater restaurant. A massive pool. And a massive main restaurant (so big that it provides a map of all the stations). In fact, Ailafushi is joined by its sister property Lobigili which makes the entire estate all the more expansive as Lobigili sits like a mirror image opposite Ailafushi.
Since diminutive charm is one of the traditional lures of the Maldives, what does this counter-conventional scale offer in return? More choice in the expansive restaurant. But mostly, the scale economies. The two operations nots only share a gym and the underwater restaurant, but also all the logistics and overhead. Value pricing with water villas under $1000 and beach villas in the $300s.
In addition to intimacy, the other sacrifice is service. The restaurants are entirely self-service. The resort asks you to check yourself in with their app. For people who think the personal butler invasion of the luxury properties is OTT and who are just fine with checking themselves out at the grocery store, then this approach will not be any inconvenience.
And just how much of the classic Maldives experience do you miss with such a new mega-resort concept? You get the same sunsets, the same tropical sun, the same dappled blue ocean. But mostly you get the paradise of the Maldives with lots on offer for a budget price.
Sun Siyam Resorts and Sun Siyam Iruveli resort are fans of the Maldives Complete website and gave us a particularly warm welcome. One of my motivations for all the work I do on the website is to be more of a “participant” than a “spectator”. This Maldivian owned, run and staff-dominated resort made us feel especially embraced by this wonderful destination that has become such a big part of our lives.
Iruveli is sitting right in the luxury property sweet spot. So many topflight resorts are entering the $1000/nt for a solid luxury product. Iruveli stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these competitors with a differentiation on value by pricing a bit lower and offering a bit more in their all-inclusive (eg. floating breakfast, free dives). If the solid luxury experience is what you seek, but the $1000 is a stretch to your budget, you should look at Iruveli. The food is superb with gourmet options of inventive concepts (stay tuned).
Increasing focus on experiences. For example, we had a number of firsts during our stay (which is not easy have 25 years of visiting the Maldives and staying at 115 resorts. One was using an underwater scooter. We never really fancied the experience, but found it more enjoyable and useful than anticipated. We’ve seen these advertised at other resorts and at first look they seemed like an overly engineered gimmick, but having done the experience they actually do have lots of merit. You can cover more ground more quickly looking for your favourite creatures, you can do more with less effort, and you can worry a bit less about current (but never stop worrying about current). One tip is we didn’t really know whether to use our fins or not. In principle, with the scooter providing the propulsion they are superfluous, but in reality they are handy to provide control treading water when the scooter is not running (and also they provide backup if your battery ran out).
Sun Siyam is one of the longest standing resort groups in the Maldives, so they definitely have the experience to create great experiences (stay tuned for many examples in upcoming Best of the Maldives posts).
The Italians have a long-standing tradition as Maldives pioneers with many Italian operated and targeted resorts especially in the earlier days. The one other website which is comparable to Maldives Complete in its information extensiveness is MondoMaldives which as well as being a comprehensive source of info, is also a travel agency catering to the Italian market. Most of the Italian resorts have been 4-star mid-market affairs, but now Baglioni introduces a bit of Italian flair and style to the luxury end of the market.
The key word here is “spacious”. The linen white beaches are expansive. The house reef is naturally proportionately expansive leaving so much to explore over an extended stay. It even features a prominent dive site, Maaga Caves. And the rooms are spacious in both footprint and airy cathedral ceilings.
Every part of the resort exudes an opulence from the elegant design down to the talcum soft sand pervasive across the island including the paths (ideal for the “no shoes” part of the “no shoes, no news” saying).
Vilu Reef is probably the resort that has most exceeded my expectations of the over 110 we have stayed at. Vilu Reef has been around as long as we have been coming to the Maldives, ie. 1998. It is the first of the prominent Sun Siyam Resorts. I guess I was guilty of thinking of it as an old resort. And I hadn’t heard much about it over the years. Also, Sun Siyam is a bit more mid-market focused (thank goodness not everyone is chasing the billionaire segment and keeping the destination affordable for mere mortals). Its new Siyam World is very much mass market, Olhuveli is a 4+ star (with many luxury aspects), and even Irufushi is a value priced 5-star.
We thought that maybe we were being bowled over by their very hearty welcome (they are big fans of the Maldives Complete site) but looking around we observed other guests being treated with equal attentiveness. In fact, another guest got the most elaborate welcome that we have ever witnessed. Not a celebrity, but a repeater (stay tuned for her fascinating story). “Mama” (her nickname) and her husband, both from Germany, first came to the Maldives in the 90s when they were young. They loved it so much that they came repeatedly. But they stayed at different resorts every time starting at the top of the country and working their way south. Dhaalu is one of the furthest south atolls; they sampled plenty of properties. But when they came to Vilu Reef, they decided that that was it. Vilu Reef was the perfect resort for them. Her visit this year was their 41st (!). And they are quite discerning world travelers as Mama explained to me that they regularly travel all around the world. According to their very experienced tastes, Vilu Reef is a real “diamond”.
I couldn’t disagree. I simply can’t find anything to fault it. We thought it ideal for many of our friends who have always wanted to come to the Maldives without busting their bank account, but still getting a quality experience. Vilu Reef ticks every box for a great Maldives resort – copious soft sand, vibrant reef, delectable food, and effusive service. Even the pathways had talcum soft sand (often these areas are harder). The reef had the most live coral we have seen in years. The outlets were replete with delicious offerings and even gourmet quality dishes (the dhaal was as good as the Michelin starred Atul Kochhar’s “Vassu” in my hometown) and the above-and-beyond consideration of each guest was remarkable even for the Maldives.
But I must say, the cherry on the top of the cake was an extra special occasion that we have never experienced – blue diamonds on the beach. We’ve all seen the Instagram images of the glowing blue plankton at the water’s edge. This intensity of colour is much rarer than social media would have you believe and even those images are enhanced quite dramatically in post (much like the starry heavens shots). At Vilu Reef, the plankton didn’t glow in blue swathes (there needs to be more concentrated plankton in the water for that which happens at a difference season), but instead landed on the beach with each diminutive wave littering an array of dazzling bright blue dots like little gemstones (or stars) along the water’s edge. Like seeing a swarm of aquatic fireflies beaching themselves. Absolutely magical.
Our 20th trip to the Maldives. Wow. And still the magical anticipation dominates our thoughts.
5 more to add to our list:
A stark difference to the 12 visited in Tour 2015. Back then, Maldives Complete was just launched and I wanted to experience and research as many properties as possible. Before the days of influencer blaguer hordes, remote corporate bean-counter, tsumanis of guest content, Maldives Complete was a novelty. Information about resorts in one place online, no barrage of ads and offers to mask the shilling.
These days it is difficult for me to string together a long run of resorts because I’ve visited every atoll with more than one resort and hopping on sea planes in and out of Male is super expensive financially and logistically. Finally, many resorts offer me industry rates, but those often come with a provision of a two-night minimum. My companion, assistant and wife, Lori, is delighted to have more extended stays reduce the frenzy of running around to get all my work done and provide some down time to actually enjoy and experience the Maldives again.
This trip focuses on the Dhaalu atoll. We visited there in 2018, but this return allows us to mop up most of the rest of the properties.
I will be providing regular visit overviews as well as tracking my resort-at-a-glance on TripAdvisor Maldives Forum per tradition.
Here are a few of our observations of our favourite destination:
Rise of Families – I noted in 2020 how families seemed to be more and more prevalent. This trip confirmed it. In particular, the latest visitor stats which show the number of families visiting skyrocketing from 11% to 36% in one year! As a result, many properties that had “adult only” policies are dropping them or scaling them back as they just can’t afford to cut out this segment. You also see it in the room configurations. The vast majority of rooms are listed as 3 adult capacity (by the third adult they generally mean a child over 12 years old) with a convertible settee built into the room. Many others have a stock of portable beds to roll in and expand capacity to 3 adults and 1 child.
Growth of stony corals – In recent years, seeing any new growth on reefs was an anomaly, but now every reef we snorkeled had a significant amount of especially big block corals like Diploria, Porites, Alcyonidae, Pocilloporidae, and Acroporidae (which research is showing fare better than other corals in the warmer water). The coral gardens seemed more like a spring garden than a winter one…sparse, but promising.
$1000/nt luxury AI – Lots of very fine resorts are targeting the $1000/nt segment with a luxury (ie. dine-around, fine food, lots included such a two excursions and one spa treatment) AI offering (Cora Cora, Emerald, OBLU, OZEN, Amilla). Just right for the affluent market who are not billionaires.
Atmosphere Group Investment – The Indian resort group Atmosphere is making a big play for the Maldives. They have half a dozen properties already with plans to open many more. Probably the most of a non-Maldivian hotel group (aside from Marriott group).
Accessibility Nod – Most of you have seen the brilliant initiative that Jason and Victoria have done at Amilla for inclusion and accessibility. But I was impressed at how many accessibility features I was seeing across the resorts (especially ramps). My wife and I both work with disabled individuals so we have a bit on accessibility sensitivity.
The Yanks Are Coming– The Indian Ocean on the other side of the world to North America so travel is exceptionally long. And flanked by the Caribbean on the east and the South Pacific on the west, the are plenty of tropical paradise options in the Americans’ backyard making them relatively rare in the Maldives. But the addition of more Marriott properties (eg. The Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, Sheraton, W Retreat, Meridian, Renaissance, Marriott) is luring lots of Americans who have Starwood points to burn and have been enchanted by the destination through social media exposure.
Russians are the new Chinese – A while back it seemed like the Maldives had been overrun by Chinese as they dominated the numbers. The Chinese are still a strong market, but they seem comparable in size to may other visitor geographies now. In fact, one of the gratifying changes in the Maldives we have observed over two decades is how it has morphed from a uniformly European sunshine bolt-hole into an internationally and ethnically eclectic mix. That said, the clearly dominant set of guests are the Russians. There were lots of them everywhere we went. I thought that maybe the economic situation in Russia would have reduced them, but actually the travel sanctions and Maldives being one of the few countries welcoming them has meant that they are all going there.
Digital Default – The default way of doing everything is digitally now. Download the resort app to check-in. Connect with the resort/butler via WhatsApp. Read the restaurant menus via QR codes on the table.
Windier and Windier – I’ve commented in the past how July has gone from “breezy” to “windy” and this July was even more so with some days near gale force. Frankly, the “maldives sinking” is a colourful, PR-grabbing red-herring (ocean levels are rising quite slowly and terraforming and other measures can mitigate effectively). The real issue is weather intensity and extremity. Climate change may make the Maldives inhospitable before it makes them submerged. For the tourisms industry, the winds disrupt snorkeling accessibility and visibility, feet-in-sand al fresco dining, transfer reliability and speed, etc.
Goodbye Tchotchke – The airport tchotski store in the departure lounge to have one last chance to grab cheap trinkets, a fixture throughout our two decades passing through there, has been replaced with a swish boutique.
To paraphrase Meghan Trainor, it’s all about the “blues” (no “trouble”). One aspect that makes the Maldives such a global bucket list destination is its unparalleled tapestry of aquatic azure hues. This famous blend of cerulean, cobalt and cyan is punctuated by a touches of tropical palm green and brilliant white sand tinged by highlights of golden sunshine. OZEN Maadhoo exemplifies the distinctive Maldives palette with an expansive variegated lapis lagoon, lush verdant vegetation, broad cotton white beaches and, of course, plenty of glowing sun. I’ve seen big lagoons before in the Maldives, and I have seen big beaches, but I don’t recall seeing such an extensive combo of both at one island.
The aesthetic theme is imbued in its elegant pool with its own pattern of blue tiles. And if you want you can even explore under the blues with visit to its underwater restaurant “Minus 6 Meters”
OZEN Maadhoo splashes the ultimate maritime expanse of colour.
Longing for the simple Maldives – no TV, no pool, no butlers. Fihalhohi took us back to a classic, original version of the Maldives.
Fihalhohi was the lowest priced resorts on our tour and has long been one of the more basic of resorts in the destination. I remember first researching it decades ago and it had a bare bones website with a few sketchy photos. So we weren’t expecting too much. Nonetheless, it supposedly had a lovely house reef and is one of the classic properties so we were keen to check it out.
We were so pleasantly surprised. The villas had had a refurb a few years back and so, while still simple, they were fresh and smart looking. The general common area infrastructure is still a bit dated and worn, but that gives it a bit of charm.
Satisfaction is all relative to expectations…and, I must say, Fihalhohi (or “Fiha” as it is colloquially referred to) considerably exceeded ours. We also made some nice friends (see below)