Tour 2022 took us to 7 new resorts bringing the grand total to 109 resorts we have stayed at in 19 visits (see the updated map below).
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)
Cora Cora is like a collection of all of our favourite things in the Maldives – small island, fine house reef, cultural heritage, whimsical vibe, colourful aesthetic, progressive management, accessible luxury. One might think that after staying at over 110 Maldives resorts, and having written over 1600 “Best of the Maldives” pieces we would have seen it all by now. So it is delightful to continue our adventure of discovery and find over 20 features to Cora Cora that we hadn’t seen before (or at least not with their twist). Also, it shows that you don’t have to be a super luxury property to be distinctive. I’m not surprised when I come across some esoteric luxury in one of the ultra-premium resorts, but it’s especially satisfying when a resort finds a way to add an inventive touch with creativity as opposed to big budgets. Stay tuned for some colourful delights.
Emerald makes a big impression for a small island. The juxtaposition of spacious and grand facilities on the intimate island provides an cozy luxury for those who want the diminutive island (you can walk completely around in a matter of minutes) while enjoying comfortable spaciousness in their dining, sleeping and playing areas.
Emerald is also probably the most “resort-y” of Maldives resorts we have been to. It exudes the luxury and indulgence of the resorts depicted in films (“Couples Retreat”) and television (“White Lotus”). I think it is because their common area facilities have this extravagant grandeur about them.
And yet, the property maintains its distinctive Maldivian charm – stylish touches of thatch, expansive white sand beaches, accessible house reef, and (our favourite) a sand floor in the bar (which so many of the newer and more upmarket resorts have eschewed).
Emerald is playing in the $1000/nt premium AI segment which is hugely popular at the moment as it is a real sweet spot for the affluent professional visitor willing to shell out for a distinctive holiday while keeping the outlay somewhat under control. A number of excellent 5-stars resorts are also positioning themselves in this space and choosing between them comes down to rather subjective considerations. I would recommend Emerald for those who want a big experience on a small island.
Eriyadu is another vintage Maldives classic – tiny island, fine house reef, decades long pedigree– tiny island, fine house reef, decades long pedigree – tarted up with a few reburbs inside the villas and around the property. In particular, the villa rooms themselves were quite smart. The new bathrooms were almost 5-star in quality (but I must say that situating them in a carved-out part of the previous front room and leaving the initial front door in place, was a curious aspect). The house reef is especially accessible straight off the main jetty and drifting down to the dive school jetty for coming in. We saw several sweet reef sharks and a striking eagle ray as well as even more encouraging coral growth.
Take me back to the Maldives. And take me back to the Maldives that we fell in love with is what OBLU by Atmosphere at Helengeli certainly does. Walkable size, retro early-tourism era structures (like their games area cement seating), sand floors in the bar and restaurant (oh how I miss these in so many of the luxury properties, but I guess they do a number on the LE BOUTIN stilettos), North Male atoll convenience (no seaplane to mess with, but sitting but on the upper fringe of the atoll, it does have a distinctively remote “middle of the Indian Ocean” feel). But Helengeli has also kept up with the times with some well-chosen revamps and additions – dining area with over water seating and big windows, charming “spa oasis” laid out around a water garden, and even and over-water gym!
And like classic Maldives, the main event at Helengeli is the snorkelling. Situated on not one but two channels provides an extra flow of water helping the corals a bit and providing an appeal boulevard for a range of marine life making it one of the most vibrant house reefs in the Maldives. We saw encouraging growth especially among the block corals like porites and diploria (brain coral) along with three of the Snorkel Safari Big 5 – shark, turtle, moray.
If you want to see blue, and you don’t know where to go, why don’t you go where fashion sits? Puttin’ on the Ritz.
It’s all about the view. For me, the number one reason to visit the Maldives is to gaze upon the tapestry of dappled blues that make the destination other-worldly with its dazzling aquatic vistas. When your flight first enters the Laccadive airspace, the expanse of variegated azure and turquoise beneath seems like you are not descending on just one of the planet’s premier destinations, but rather that you have arrived an entirely different planet altogether. One of our biggest thills when visiting resorts is finding unique ways the property has optimized the bucket-list worthy views (and conversely, one of our biggest pet peeves are when such views are disrupted or not optimized).
One advantage to Ritz Carlton Maldives being built on reclaimed land is that they were able to design the entire island layout from the outset. Holistic design is definitely a hallmark of this relatively recent entry to the super-luxury class of Maldives resorts. The Ritz does literally put the “O” in “OMG” employing an “O” thematic element. The villas, the kids club, the spa, various common areas and features are all constructed in this circular shape (see photo below).
Contrary to the Louis XVI rococo ornamentation of its London patriarch, the style aesthetic was contemporary simplicity executed with a palette of natural colours and textures. Brushed concrete and washed wood evoke a cashmere-like softness to all the surfaces.
But our favourite aspect of the design was its optimization of views. For starters, the reclaimed land meant that the foliage was less dense anyway. Also, the extensive square meterage of the island provided copious space to afford optimal layouts (many times disrupted views are the casualty of having to squeeze too many things into too small of a space). And the narrow shape of the property meant that just about every inch was ocean view. And the designers did not squander this bonanza. Everywhere we sat seemed deliberately optimized for a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean expanse.
If you are going to put your resort in the super-premium sector, then having some sort of “Wow” factor is fairly important. Many of these resorts opt for the subaquatic vista with an underwater restaurant. A few have opted to go “up” with vertical vistas (eg. Anantara Kihavah, Jumeirah Maldives, Velaa). But the Ritz’s distinction was to go closer to the ocean. They do so with expansive floor to ceiling windows covering nearly the entire width of the villa. Furthermore, the villas are positioned relatively close to the shore line and have only a smattering of small foliage between. As a result, when you enter your room, your entire peripheral vision is filled with the ocean so clear and close that you feel you could stretch out and dip your toe in it. It brings the outside in. Sitting in our bed in the beach villa, we felt closer to the water than we have in many water villas (and in the water villas themselves, this design only amplifies their aquatic intimacy).
Tour #19 of the Maldives. Seven new resorts – Ritz Carlton Maldives, OBLU Helengeli, Eriyadu, Emerald, Cora Cora, Fihalhohi, OZEN Maadhoo – to explore and find new gems. But first, I had to try a new airline – Emirates.
My research early in the year found lots of plaudits for the UAE state airline and the schedule and prices fit well so I thought we would try it.
First, we had to a run the gauntlet of mayhem that was Terminal 3 Heathow. We arrived nearly 3 hours ahead of departure time and barely made it to the flight as Lori was literally the last person to board the plane. There were delays at every juncture, but most was the 90 minute security queue. So much for our relaxing pre-trip cocktails.
When we boarded, we encountered another first – A380. I had read plenty about these airborne behemoths and had seen them on the airport tarmac, but I had never set foot in one. It was a every bit a treat as this next generation flying machine would have you hope for. Spacious, elegant, modern. Large HD video screens. A few inches of extra legroom and seat width. Not to mention the extra aisle headroom making the whole environment less claustrophobic. Nice full power sockets at each seat. The wifi was great value ($17 for entire journey), but pretty weak and unreliable.
After a very quick stopover in Dubai (too dark to see any of its iconic structures on arrival or departure), we were off on the final leg of the Maldives. The Emirates flight is a nice balance of a two-legged trip to there (in the absence of a direct flight which BA has pulled once again from its summer schedule). A longer first leg of just under 7 hours is a good length for a meal, some reading, a few computer games and a film. Then you stretch you legs in Dubai and only have 3.5 hours to go which you can nap through.
Maldives, here we are!
What this tour limited in (barely) post-COVID constraints it made up for with long anticipated visits. Tour #18 was short (with even fewer resorts covered due to COVID monitoring alerts), but in a number of different ways included a triad of 3 of resorts would most want to visit:
- Biyadhoo – The longest standing, most anticipated and probably cheapest resort we haven’t visited.
- Soneva Jani – The most coveted and probably most expensive resort we haven’t visited.
- Amilla – About the only resort where we will break our rule to not re-visit resorts.
General destination observations:
- Local Island High Rises: Transferring to Biyadhoo in the South Male Atoll I was struck by the number of “high rise” (over 2 stories, up to about 8 stories) buildings on local islands. Of course, with horizontal acreage at a minimum, going vertical makes absolute sense. It does erode some of the primitive vibe to the surroundings, but the Maldivians obviously should not be trapped in some yesteryear nostalgia for primitive aesthetic of huts on islands.
- Inter-Island Transfers: The whole COVID process has gotten so much smoother than when we came late December. And the process is massively easier than our trip to another archipelago, the Azores, that we visited in July (17 pages of forms required). Now, BA has a methodical app to check out your COVID credentials and the Maldives has the IMUGA website. Once those forms are completed, the desk agents and passport control simply check your QR code and that’s it. But, inter-island transfer limited by any COVID outbreaks. Bit like having region or even town-specific lockdowns. Multi-island visits (like my tours) are a bit of a dice roll though there is low incidence of problems and they are dropping. Our mixed itinerary was affected but a bit of juggle and it all worked out.
- Conditions Conventional Wisdom: Specific medium-term weather was never a perfect science, but some general rules of thumb did apply to different months which on average would affect the general balance of conditions across a given week. In fact, speaking to a Maldivian during our stay, he said that he used to be able to have a general feel for how weather was going to be in a given period as he was growing up, but now he admits he simply doesn’t have a clue and just about anything can happen any time and the weather has gotten much more unpredictable. So just about any historical conventional wisdom about weather and house reef conditions (two major concerns of prospective visitors) is getting increasingly outdated in recent years
- Wind, Wind, Wind: We have tended to travel in more “unsettled” periods of Maldivian year when it comes to weather – mid-summer and late-autumn. Especially, Lori (being of a “certain age”) quite enjoyed the gentle ocean breezes. However, this week’s trip was not wafting, but downright windy. And not just in gusts or periods in the day. But non-stop throughout the day. And through the night…so much so that we were regularly wakened by the howl of the blustery conditions outdoors.