Best of the Maldives: Mist Hammocks – Dhawa Iruhu

Dhawa Ihuru - mist hammock

Overwater and on-water hammocks have become almost cliché from the countless Instagram photos posted of them, but Dhawa Ihuru offers the first (I’ve seen) *in* water hammocks. No, not sitting in the lagoon. But you sitting in a refreshing mist of cool spray while you relax in the tropical sun. For making your own misty water-coloured memories of the way you were in paradise.


Why Do I Tour in the First Place?

Tour 2023 map

This was my most difficult tour yet. In fact, research trips have gotten more and more challenging in recent years. Primarily driven by the scourge of “influencers”, but lots of other variables as well. With zero revenue for the Maldives Complete website, the cost of research is high in the best of times. If I am paying full rack rates (as well as lots of extra and expensive transfers) for the privilege of spending 24 hours running around to get content and promote the destination and resort, then the cost-benefit equation for all the work I do year-round tends to be questionable. Part of the motivation was the enthusiastic greetings and often special support and consideration given to my visit.

With American Labor Day weekend upon us, I reflected on tis labor of love enterprise and the changes from when I started Maldives Complete in 2009 and now 14 years later. It is a lens to how the industry has changed in 14 years:

  • Resort Organisation:
    • Before: Most resorts were local with limited marketing resources who welcomed any assistance.
    • Today: Most resorts are international with big corporate marketing departments in some remote country
  • Web
    • Before: When I started, the resort websites were very basic and there was a thirst for my content creation.
    • Today: Maldives content is commoditised with every guest cranking out material in Instagram and TripAdvisor posts.
  • Ministry of Tourism
    • Before: The MMPRC embraced the Maldives Complete site and helped me extensively to get materials. The destination was a bit of lesser-known niche sun-spot for Europeans.
    • Today: They don’t return emails now that they have been turned into a global bucket-list destination with the lifestyle porn abounding on social media.
  • Industry
    • Before: The tourism industry was relatively small and there was a close-knit community of people involved with it who all helped each other out.
    • Today: The sector is several times larger and mostly corporatised by remote bureaucrats.
  • Price Points
    • Before: Starting as a dive destination with basic accommodation, the Maldives resorts started going mostly into mid-market properties with a few luxury properties sprinkled amongst.
    • Today:  Now the majority are luxury (if you have a limited amount of real estate, get the most you can for each square metre) and many are super-luxury. As a result, even with industry rates, the costs of a visit are huge (not problem for operators who can just write it off, but a direct expense to me).
  • Transience
    • Before: Long-term players were prevalent…people who embraced the destination for extended periods allowing relationships to form.
    • Today: Short-stint secondments by corporate staff are more prevalent making supportive relationships harder to nurture.
  • Atoll Logistics
    • Before: I used to choose an atoll each year to fly to and then island hop around fairly easily.
    • Today: Having been to every major atoll, fashioning an itinerary of resorts involves longer, complicated, more expensive transfers to get to the far-flung outliers I have so far missed.

The question remains, “In the Digital Age, is there any need for in-person visits to the Maldives to research the website?” The question is no unlike the one circulating the post-COVID corporate executive suites about how important face-to-face time is and how much companies should encourage if not force staff to return to the workplace. I have always held (for over a decade) that remote working is not an “either-or” question, but a “how much” question dependent on the dynamics of the job(s) to be done. And similarly. Keeping Maldives Complete…well…”complete”, requires a non-zero amount of time on the ground at the destination.

The benefits boil down to three key areas (which are pretty similar for any remote working):

· Relationships – One of the top arguments for spending SOME time together in the remote working is relationship building. In my work environment, I always try to meet someone face-to-face even if most of our interaction will be remote. Establishing that initial introduction and rapport facilitates the teleconferencing interaction, but cannot be effectively achieved by it. In many cases, I end up with more material from the resort after the visit than during it. The reason is because having been there and gotten to know the (right) staff, they understand me better and are more responsive and effective in forwarding me useful material for the site.

· First-Hand – The terabytes of information are great for basic research, but there is just no substitute for seeing the whole property, in context of both the surroundings and the minute details often overlooked or not visible in the countless pictures. Especially as Maldives Complete’s blog often focusses on the unique and distinctive, those features can be hard to search for online when buried under a mountain of the same old pictures of palm trees and blue vistas.

· Serendipity – The final benefit to “getting over there” is the sheer serendipity that happens when you are in the thick of things. Bumping into people you know (in fact, I created a “Crossing Paths” tag in the blog to mark these occasions) or other interesting staff or guests who just happen to be around.

Actually, one of the books I brought and read on this trip is a travelog about the Maldives: “Gatecrashing Paradise” (stay tuned for post about it) which included a fine quote from travel writer Paul Theroux justifying the need for re-visiting in this digital age:

  • “If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay at home and be brilliantly insightful. Yet with so much contractor information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes – importantly – suffer the effects of curiosity.”

I’ll keep pushing forward trying to see as much of the new Maldives as possible (I think I have seen all but a handful of the resorts that were around when I first started the website).

Practice Any Art

Vonnegut advice

Every Maldives Tour is probably the most stirring reminder of the year of why I invest so much time, effort and money into the Maldives Complete website. As it happens, en route this time I was catching up on a bit of reading which included a piece by Esquire magazine on a letter Kurt Vonnegut wrote to his students. He tells them to “practice any art…” and that is what I am doing with Maldives Complete. From blog writing, to coding, to all the other creative activities that go into the content of the site.

During my visit with Sun Siyam Iru Veli, their digital marketing manager described how they segmented the people the resort supports during their visits – celebrities, influencers, and content creators. While I have a bit of a profile in the niche arena of Maldives tourism, and the site influences research guests and operators, he said that my real value was content creation. I guess I never really thought of my role in such a clear manner, but it makes sense in light of my motivations which abide by Vonnegut’s wise advice.

The Interview Game 2023

Interview Game - Bruce and Lori

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.

July Weather…Again

July Weather satellite map

July seems to cause a particular amount of consternation with guests who read weather forecasts of nothing but rain for days on end and fear that their trip-of-a-lifetime will be a wash-out. I’ve already posted a piece clarifying the usually modest impact rain has in July after my 2019 Tour, but we enjoyed another particularly pronounced example of the “passing shower” and thought it would be helpful to post it. While the rain cloud in the video below did miss our island, on another day we did get hit square on with a 20-minute downpour pelting it down with quite strong winds. We were quite impressed with the nonplussed children in the pool who weren’t phased in the least and continued their watery frolicking made all the more watery during the mini-rainstorm.

The storm was part of a passing front which we looked up on the satellite weather website (see above). One of the benefits of being in the middle of the ocean is that there are no mountains to block ort dry land to slow down passing weather. So if you do get hit, you can usually count on it passing right over fairly quickly.

Tour 2023 Review

Tour 2023

Our 20th Tour and now 116 resorts in the Maldives visited with the following additions:

  1. Dhawa Ihuru
  2. Baglioni
  3. Sun Siyam Vilu Reef
  4. Sun Siyam Iruveli
  5. Ailafushi
  6. 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.

Tour 2023 – Ailafushi

Ailufushi - Tour 2023

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.

Tour 2023 – Sun Siyam Iru Veli

Iruveli - Tour 2023

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).

Tour 2023 – Baglioni

Tour 2023 - Baglioni

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).