Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 12: Club Med Finolhu Villas

Club Med Finolhu - tour

Forget all your preconceived notions about hyper-ebullient, non-stop entertainment and buzz of activity at Club Med resorts. Their Finolhu Villas marquee property in the Maldives couldn’t be more contrary to that persona.

Instead of a whirlwind of activities, Finolhu Villas was tranquil and peaceful. There is no animation team pumping up the volume every night or leading the children in a pool frolic. In fact, no children under 12 years old are even allowed on the island, and only adults (over 18) are allowed in the water villas.

Instead of value priced villas typical of many Club Med resorts, Finolhu Villas is masterfully designed with artistically undulating curves (no not *that* kind of curves) most prominent in its distinctive roofs, but echoed as a motif throughout the resort. The resort features an array of modernist styling including its striking glass floor in its over water bar, and the grounds are meticulously landscaped like some tropical stately home.

Actually, “Villas” are a misnomer. They should be called “Finolhu Suites”. All of them have living areas for lounging completely segregated on the opposite side of the bathroom characteristic of a suite. In fact, both rooms have their own large screen plasma television. I guess that is good if you can’t agree on what to watch, but if that kind of argument is happening on your honeymoon, you might want to invest in some relationship counseling. 😉

Finolhu Villas is more than an upgrade from Club Med Kani. It is a whole new luxury concept.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 11: Cocoa Island

Cocoa Island - tour

When is a resort not a resort?

Cocoa Island resort doesn’t seem like a resort. No welcome sign. No adverts for activities. No bulletin boards.

The island doesn’t seem like a resort island. It seems more like a sand bar with some palm trees on it. It has a very small operations hub in the centre of the island. Over half the staff don’t live on the island but commute from the nearby neighbour. The much smaller resort infrastructure makes it seem more like a little, exclusive community of beach houses than a resort. The resort common area buildings feel more like the community’s shared country club facilities.

For such a small island it has such a big feel. The interior of the island is very sparsely vegetated so it has vast expanses of sandy ground shade by a dense palm canopy overhead (see top two pictures below). The entire interior is clear sand. But it is the exterior that really hits you. There is almost more beach than island (see second from bottom photo). Only Anantara Kihavah compares for an expansive wrap-around coral white beach. Kihavah’s is bigger because it is a bigger island, but Cocoa’s is deeper. And if a circumambulation isn’t enough, Cocoa is blessed with one of the longer sand spits in the Maldives that is actually up to 3 times longer than the island itself (see photo at bottom).

Cocoa is definitely one of the quietest islands around. The much smaller resort infrastructure means there is less activity buzz in the foreground and less support buzz in the background. At times, I almost felt that I ought to whisper so as not to break the silence.

The villas don’t feel like a resort villas. They seem more like an elegant beach cottages. Many of the villas are constructed with lofts which segregate the sleeping area. The living area below seems like a proper lounge. The lofts also give the villas an airy spaciousness. The windows extend a towering 15 feet up, and they surround you as 3 of the 4 walls provide expensive views of the aquamarine seas.

I have anticipated seeing Cocoa Island for a few years now. One of the previous Ministers of Tourism recommended it to me as her favourite resort (she was a big fan of the Maldives Complete site). It also snared the TripAdvisor top resort spot in the Maldives a few years back. So expectations were dangerously high, and yet Cocoa managed exceeded them comfortably. If you have a spare million and are considering buying a beach house that you might only get to a few times a year, I recommend putting the money in a bank account and drawing off it visit Cocoa Island regularly instead for a homey experience in the middle of true paradise.

Cocoa Island - inner island

Cocoa Island - inner island Bruce

Cocoa Island - beach

Cocoa Island - sand spit

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 9 and 10: Athuruga and Thudufushi

Athuruga and Thudufushi - tour

To save you complete and utter repetition as well as a haunting sense of deja vu, I am combining my visit posts to the Diamond Resorts Athuruga and Thudufushi. These are not just sister properties, but identical twins. Sure there are some subtle differences, but it takes a discerning eye to spot them.

I had expected there to be more variation really. One hears a huge amount about Athuruga, but actually very little about Thudufushi. On TripAdvisor, Athuruga has 788 reviews versus about a third fewer (580) for Thudufushi. And on the TripAdvisor Maldives Forum Athuruga is very dominant while Thudufushi is rarely mentioned.

Both resorts stand out with their brilliant white colour theme which just amplifies the dazzling sunshine and infuses the islands with sparkle. The classic Maldivian colour palette is sky blue, deep marine blue, lagoon aquamarine, palm green and coral sand white (which is the motif of this blog header above). Most people get lost in the blues or draw out a bit of the green, but white is often the unsung colour. In most cases, white would seem ordinary. But here, it provides the bright contrasts of the coral sands. The white accentuates the open and airy feel to the villas.

The water villas are set farther apart from each other than any other resort I’ve seen. And the decks are wide and deep sheltered by a two story roof which frames a cathedral nave of ocean-side space. The villas also feature sumptuous waterfall drench showers which you would only expect to find in a super-deluxe 5+ star property so the whole water villa experience is more luxurious than its price point.

Both resorts are also renowned for their food. The resorts use a less conventional a la Carte All Inclusive (Vadoo and a few others do this as well). So you sit down and enjoy a full 4 course meal served to you which make the dining a bit more of a relaxed and elegant than a typical AI buffet.

Both resorts have sterling house reefs. In fact, Athuruga is rated by many experts as one of the best resort house reefs in the Maldives. Unfortunately, both have been hit hard by El Nino and COTS. That said, both resorts have invested more than any other resort in marine biologists to help with this problem as 3 are posted on Thudufushi and 4 (!) on Athuruga. Thudufushi does have a good number of scattered blue and yellow Acropora coral croppings which are inspiring encouragement that these reefs will bounce back.

So what are a couple of the differences?

  • Room Types – Thudufushi has a couple of extra room types namely the Jacuzzi Water Villa and Beach Junior Suite.
  • Size – Thudufushi is slightly larger all around. The larger island affords an inner spa garden where they hold yoga sessions, Maldivian theme nights, as well as host a table tennis and darts pavilions.

Both Athuruga and Thudufushi are polished 5-carat, Triple 000 quality gems with many scintillating facets to admire.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 8: Safari Island

Safari Island - tour

Many Maldives aficionados complain that all of the best islands are being snapped up for building (or re-building) super-luxury properties out of reach from the average pocketbook. Safari Island bucks that trend being a value priced 4 star resort on an exceptional 5 star island. In fact, Safari has actually gone in the opposite direction as the island that used to be the super exclusive Dhoni Migili. The lagoon is still filled with the fleet of 12 elegant dhoni yachts from its Dhoni Migili legacy. You can’t book these, but you do get an experience or stay on one if you stay for 7 or 14 days respectively.

With Maldivian prices challenging guests’ wallets so deeply, visitors need to choose what they want to pay for and what they don’t. What you are not paying for at Safari is fancy food, fittings and furniture. Safari villas have simple bamboo furniture with the palm weave ceilings that embraces a simpler, rustic vibe.

The small island means that villas are pushed right up close to the water’s edge. Ours was a Beach Villa and the water was lapping at our deck at high tide. Safari has another room category called a “Semi Water Villa” which are situated right over very shallow water right on the lagoon/beach edge.

The food is a good basic buffet victuals, but in the Maldives is it hard to go too far wrong with this option. Fresh tropical fruit like the ripe papaya that melts in your mouth (the best of our trip). Grilled reef fish caught that morning just yards away, local curries, with occasional chef special treat like the banana chocolate cake with vanilla sauce. How much more do you really need from a resort kitchen?

But the island itself is a remarkable patch of sea and sand. The beaches have some of the finest talcum powder soft grains I’ve ever wriggled my toes in (in the Maldives or anywhere else). And the house reef has to be a contender for one of the top 10 in the Maldives.

If you want 5-star Maldives “the landscape” without paying 5-star Maldives the luxury resort prices, then check out Safari Island.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 7: Kandolhu

Kandolhu - tour

Small but perfectly formed.

Kandolhu is a great example of building on your strengths. With very little real estate to play with, the resort shuns trying to pack in facilities and amenities. Instead, it amplifies the “palm tree and plot of sand” idyllic existence that makes the Maldives so unique in the first place.

Part of this deserted island aesthetic is a pervasive quiet. The intra-atoll island sits protected from big ocean currents at the atoll edge and its own distinctive reef surrounds the island with a strip of shallows that further buffer the water. So the only waves hitting the beach are tiny laps of water tickling the shores edge with more of a trickle than a crash. The resort preserves this peace and calm by not playing music in the common areas or even offering entertainment in the evenings. While they do have a water sports centre, all motorised activity is done at a separate deserted island (Merenfenfushi) over a mile away that guests are taken to.

Even with careful selectivity of whats on offer (eg. no pool, no entertainment, no tennis courts, no golf courses) the resort uses every trick in its book to make the most of its precious [real estate]. The rooms are exquisitely designed with a simple contemporary style. Some of the rooms extend upwards as duplexes to exploit the most of each square metre. Many resorts this size would simply have one restaurant, but Kandolhu has cleverly carved out several different eateries by keeping them small and intimate. Like a collection of tropical pop-ups.

Another natural feature that does amplify the scale of Kandolhu is its reef. Renowned as one of the best in the Maldives, its greatest strength is its expansive layout in such a tiny area. Lori and I swam completely around the island in less than an hour. You can easily access it from one of two jetty jump-in points. But the 50 meter shallows which lead to it are also packed with coral and creatures to explore endlessly. The drama and scale of the reef comes with its dramatic drop-off. A sheer plunge of 30 meters in places.

Kandolhu has long been renowned for some of the densest, most vibrant coral in the Maldives. And with more coral on hand, it has been hit like all of the reefs in the Maldives by the triple whammy of rising sea temperatures, the added wallop of this yearís El Nino, with attacks from Crown of Thorn Starfish (COTS) to top it all off. The resort responded aggressively to defend the reef from COTS and they seem to have won the battle as we didnít see a single one during our snorkel. Still, it will be a little time before the coral recovers to its former glory.

But the coral isnt the only aspect of the reef which makes it such an irresistible draw.  “Kandolhu” must be some sort of Maldivian dialect for“Kingdom of Turtles”. The reef is crawling with them. We saw them every few minutes. A total of six during our semi-circumnavigation of the island. Neighbouring resorts occasionally bring guests to Kandolhu to see this terrapin spectacle.

If Kandolhu was a celebrity beauty, like the parade who are drawn here from around the world, she would be Eva Longoria…petite charm, elegance and stylish beauty with a dramatic impact and personality.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 6: Taj Exotica

Taj Exotica - tour

“Taj Exotica”…more like “Turquoise Extremica”.

Taj Exotica is imbued with an Indian aesthetic and enveloped in an expanse of cyan shallows.

The subcontinent vibe permeates throughout the décor like the silhouette lanterns hanging from the trees. It prevails with Indian inspired best-ofs like Ayurveda treatments, and yoga courses.  But iit really comes alive in its restaurants. One of the best Indian dishes I have ever eaten was the recommended Chef’s Special Butter Chicken that tenderly melted in your mouth with just the right aromatic glow of piquant spices. All restaurants cater strongly to vegetarians offering a range of Jain, vegan and other alternatives to many dishes. They even serve Indian wine (Fratelli Chardonnay).

An aquamarine landscape frames the entire resort. Not just a large lagoon, but one that seems to stretch from horizon to horizon on both sides of the island. In fact, it actually covers over 200 acres in all. One of the largest lagoons in the Maldives. And Taj has built on this asset extensively. It has an unmatched array of lagoon accessories including lagoon swing and lagoon hammock, a lagoon pavilion, and a lagoon private jetty. One f the downsides to the shallow and sandy lagoons is that they are no very conducive to coral growth, but Taj has addressed this issue by investing in 206 coral frames in the past 4 years as a part of an ongoing reef generation project.  And the resort provides regular boat trips to a nearby coral reef free of charge.

Taj Exotic provides a truly affordable taste of luxury for people who want to immerse themselves in the unique blue seascape of the Maldives.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 5: Shangri-La Villingili

Shangri-La Villingili - tour

There is no reason to not come to Shangri-La Villingili.

The number one reason people give against coming to the Maldives is the myth that “There’s nothing to do there.” Admittedly, some of the smaller islands do have limited activities (but that is actually a draw for some people). But Villingili is a spacious island enabling it to support a rich infrastructure of activities and facilities. The spa is one of the largest in the Maldives and it sports a mini “village” of shops, services, dive centre, photo studio, etc.

The biggest activity “can’t do” complaint about the Maldives is golf. Many affluent travellers are happy to go just about anywhere…as long as they can swing a club. A few golf facilities have cropped up over the years across the Maldives, but only Shangri-La sports a full 9 hole course with independent fairways.  Lori and I played a round during our stay and we were thoroughly impressed. Our home in Buckinghamshire, England has no shortage of world-class golf courses and Shangri-La’s is as challenging and thrilling course as any. They are short holes (maximum hole is just under 200 yards) so no opportunity to practice your 200 yard drive. But, the modern game is all about the approach shots anyway, and as the old saying goes, “drive for show, putt for dough.” The greens and fairways are all as well maintained and manicured as any prime English course. Yes, you can play serious golf in the Maldives…at Shangri-La. Seriously laid out, seriously challenging, seriously beautiful surroundings and seriously fun.

Among Maldives aficionados, the big showstopper to choosing a resort is the “housereef”. And no house reef is adequate without (a) a drop off, and (b) easy access. Shangri-La ticks the housereef box strongly. A special set of stairs on the northern water villas jetty provides a very simple entry (I love stairs because it is so much easier to put on your fins without getting sand in everything).  Given the vagaries of maritime creatures, I am always impressed by resorts’ “called shots” in the sport of snorkelling where they call out “if you go here, you are virtually guaranteed to see this…” In Villingili’s case it was turtles. Several turtles are virtual residents there. And no less than 10 minutes into the water one of them came swimming up to us (see video clip below). Actually, it’s not too surprising as Villingili has its own turtle nesting area (which it has marked off and protected).

Another reason people avoid straying too far from the resorts close to Male is avoiding the seaplane transfers. Seaplane schedules can be quite changeable and timings are especially vulnerable to the weather. Also, some people are bothered by flying in such a small, loud, unpressurized craft, like a seaplane. But the transfer to Gan is by domestic turbo prop planes. The schedules are fixed so you will know your logistics precisely before you set off. And they fly higher over the weather in more comfortable, pressurised planes. And for the well-heeled clientele, the Gan airport accommodates private jets and Villingili provides a special greeting service where you are picked up on the tarmac. Private jets can even fly directly to Gan and clear customs avoiding a Male transfer altogether. An increasing number of charters and commercial operators are looking to expand services here so everyone can have this direct connection convenience.

If you are thinking of an exceptional stay at Villingili, then there’s nothing stopping you.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 4: Equator Village

Equator Village - tour

Equator Village has been one of the most keenly anticipated resort visits of this tour. It is one of the very first resorts I researched back in the early 90s when I started my whole Maldives adventure. There was very little on its rudimentary website at the time and little has changed.

Kurumba might be the “oldest resort”, but Equator Village is the “oldest” resort property. Its buildings were built in 1960. Its original residents weren’t exactly “tourists” in the strictest sense, but they considered their stay very much a paradise posting. Gan was a British RAF base and historical accounts talk about the officer’s days spent snorkelling the reef and sunbathing on the beach. Not too much has changed in 56 years then!

This aesthetic of the last days of the Empire survives in the current property with rattan furniture, wrought iron lamp posts, and even tin roofs! The resort villas themselves were actually the original barracks for the RAF officers and the main reception building was the officers mess and officers club. Equator Village as kept the property well maintained and it is nicely decorated with fresh paint and a number of other modern upgrades (like in room Wifi).

Equator Village is one of the lowest priced resorts in the Maldives. Not just the room rate, but the Serena Spa there offered massage treatments on special which were the cheapest massages we have ever gotten in the Maldives ($80 for one hour), but as good as any luxury spa (delivered expertly by the ubiquitous Balinese masseuses). The resort can be a very handy option with possibilities for exploring the Addu atoll on a budget and mixing your stay with a bit of history and local culture.

Vintage Maldives drenched in a shared English heritage.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 3: Canareef

Canareef - tour

When is a big island not a big island? When it goes on and on seemingly forever, and yet you are never more than a few feet from the ocean.

Canareef is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it resort for people who want to be far flung from Male…but without high seaplane transfer costs (the domestic flight is about half the price). For people who want the intimacy of a tiny island with the gentle ocean sounds surrounding them…but with a bit of room to spread their legs and support a range of activity (the island is distinctively long and skinny giving it this big-but-small duality). For people who want quality comforts and cuisine…but without all the fussy chic design and gourmet palaver.

Canareef is just the latest in probably the most extended identity crisis of any resort. The island has been known as Herathera, Handhufushi, Amari Addu and now Canareef. But I think it has finally found itself. It really made an impression on us. We would rate it as one of the Top Ten Most Distinctive resorts in the Maldives. Distinctive in terms of memorable uniqueness.

All of its distinction stem from its sinewy length – the longest stand alone resort island in the Maldives. Its 5 kilometers seems to stretch it out endlessly, but it is very narrow so the ocean is never more than a stone’s throw either side of you. So it still ‘feels’ like a tiny island with the gentle ocean acoustics in stereo surround sound. Despite its sizeable number of villas (271), you don’t feel at all crowded. In fact, if you venture up the stunning Coral Garden (the best lagoon coral garden we have seen in the Maldives) at the southern most tip of the island, there are no villas and you feel like you are on your own deserted island expedition.

The restaurant offers nicely done food – lunch included grilled to order lamb steaks, pickled calamari, and stone fruit mousse. But the best part was the ocean view and the sand floor. Too many of the larger buffet restaurants opt for hard floors or enshroud their restaurant in the inner island away from the sea views (mind you, Canareef doesn’t really have an inner island, it is so narrow). They also have sand floors at its reception and bars. I am struggling to recall a resort that uses natural sand floors as extensively as Canareef.

Canareef is a very affordable resort that so many people crying out for with all the creature comforts combined with an exceptional island.

Maldives Tour 2016 – Day 2: Addu Atoll

Canareef - equator crossing

Last year’s tour took us to the very tip top of the Laccadive atolls, and this year’s trip takes us to the tippy toe – Addu (aka “Seenu”) atoll.

So far south that when you fly Maldivian Airlines, the pilot makes an announcement when you cross the Equator and the flight attendant hands out personalised “Equator Crossing Certificates” (see above photo).

Most Maldives atoll sprawl over dozens of miles and they are peppered with lots of little dots of islands inside them. You can cast a gaze on the horizon and typically see one or two of these green blots floating on the ocean. Addu, however, is one big circle of “islands”. Look on the inside of your location an you will see the thin emerald ribbon (periodically broken up) all around you. Look on the outside of your island and you will see nothing by wide open Indian Ocean (all the way to Antarctica to the south).

The one main downside to the marine topography is the limitations on classic house reef “drop offs”. These tend to be the domain of those intra-atoll little dots of which Addu doesn’t really have any. But the atoll delivers a range of other enticing attractions that might just make Addu well be worth the trip. It hosts 3 very distinctive resorts – Canareef, Shangri-La Villingili, and Equator Village. The turbo-prop transfer is about half the cost of a seaplane transfer to other islands that don’t have local airstrips (Haa Alifu to the north also has an airport). Being off the beaten path a bit means that its fine dive sites are not as crowded. We were all alone at our dive today and casting a glance on the horizon, there were only a couple of dive boats scattered among the dozens of dive sites. Famous manta haunts like Lankan and Hanafaru are so crowded that they have had to start limiting the number of divers visiting them. We were the only divers when we visited Addu’s own Manta Point (see below). The group before came up to our boat and told us they saw 9 mantas, but the current shifted and we only saw one. That said, he seemed as big as 9!’

Addu atoll feels like a sort of “Maldives Keys” (for anyone who has made the famous run down to Key West in Florida). A necklace of islands strung together surrounded on both sides by stereo ocean vistas.