World Photography Day today. Of course, fashionistas from all over the world (and their shutterbug companions) fill the azure-framed, brilliant white beaches every day in the Maldives (don’t forget to take off your sunglasses…though we will forgive Olga since it matches her ensemble)…
Where to begin with the LUX* North Male Atoll? Tour 2019 came back so many candidate “Best of the Maldives” features for LUX that it’s hard to choose. Maybe just start at the top. And I do mean tippy top. With a crowning distinction which plays to a long loved aspect of mine when resorts find a way to highlight this defining characteristic of the Maldives – vistas.
From the moment your flight approaches the Maldives archipelago, you are mesmerized by the expansive vista of blues spreading out beneath you across the ocean. Unfortunately, with a destination known for its diminutive elevation, most views of this aqua-coloured dreamscape are are obliquely cast across the surface. Just getting a bit of elevation can extend and enrich the panorama of blue pantones before you.
I’ve long had a “Vistas” as a “Best Of” category tag, and LNMA provided several to add to that collection. In fact, the vista is one of the central design tenets of the entire property. Every single villa is architected around an open rooftop deck with king-sized loungers for lying back to gaze with equal comfort and wonder at the waters below or the heavens above. They even have a name for this area – your “Sky Lounge”. You can have dinner served there (including an open-air BBQ), have a film under the stars projected there, or just sit and enjoy the 360 degree scenery.
But its not just your villa where you can enjoy the vertical perspective. The INTI restaurant is situated on a second floor with a completely open view of the pool and beyond. The Café LUX coffee shop sits upstairs looking over the ocean. Even the kids club offers a raised floor with a view.
LUX North Male Atoll just raised the bar on enjoying Maldives ‘ spectacular vistas.
There are “Best of the Maldives” features…and then there are like “soul mate” features. Features that I just adore. Not everyone will have the same effusive reaction I had to Dhigali’s “Buggy Tracker” application, but for me it was one of the highlights of the 2019 Tour.
The Buggy Tracker is an app that is both part of the resort’s own “Digalhi Maldives” app which you can download onto your smartphone (for iPhone’s, see the AppStore or you cann scan the QR code which is on every room key) – see photo below. It is also supported with an array of monitors dotted around the island at each buggy stop. The app/screen shows a map of the island as well as an icon for the constantly circling buggy so you can see how far away it is from you (see video clip at bottom).
Why a Buggy Tracker? Because Dhigali is sort of a middle sized island. We can and did walk around it, but a complete circumparaumbulation (yes, I love that word) takes nearly half an hour. If you are on the opposite end of the island to where you want to go, you might prefer to forego the stroll and just take the buggy ride. Maybe you are particularly relaxed, maybe you refreshed or it is especially toasty and you don’t want to sweat, maybe you need to be somewhere and are running behind (eg. excursion departing). On tiny island, you just walk everywhere because you are always a couple minutes away from anywhere. On big islands, you have to call for (or wait for) a buggy. When you call, you still have to wait which can be a while if they have other pickups scheduled. On a middle sized island like Dhigali, you can find yourself constantly debating “Should we walk or should we wait for the buggy?” And if you want to take the buggy and it is an on-call service, you sometimes feel a bit lazy and guilty ringing it up for a relatively short journey.
The Buggy Tracker takes all the questioning away. You look at your app or look at the screen and you can see exactly how close the buggy is. If you see if is coming round the bend, you might pop out that minute faster to grab it rather than miss it and wait for it to come around again. If it is on the other side of the island, you might choose to just hoof it. Or if you do decide to wait, it is reassuring to know exactly how far away your ride is and not have to wonder if you are going to be there forever.
Why do I love it so much?
Innovation – The whole spirit of “Best of the Maldives” is really about innovation. Sure, a property might be able to be the biggest or the blingest by just spending the most on some feature, but more of my pieces are about creative touches and distinctive aspects that no one has done in quite the same way in the Maldives.
Technology – As a software guy for my day job, I have a special appreciation for cool applications in this area. I have a particular software soft-spot for geo-location apps. Snorkel Spotter, Dive Site Database and the Admiralty Map DeepZoom all essentially mapping apps.
Utility – The system is so simple and so useful. I love innovations that truly enhance the customer experience.
Maldivian – I always enjoy meeting the fascinating people behind the scenes of the Maldives resort operations especially the local Maldivians to bring this paradise to life. Many have such distinctive talents and contributions. The entire project was the initiative of Mohamed Furuqan, the resort’s IT manager (see photo top). We got to meet up during my stay and geek out a bit about tech. It’s also especially inspiring to see the innovation stem from a homegrown initiative supported wholeheartedly by the management.
You don’t want even the trip of a lifetime to cost your life savings. That is why All-Inclusive (or “AI”) packages are so popular. You pay for your holiday and you know that is it. Everything is included. You can enjoy yourself and not have to worry about rocking up to the cashier’s desk on the final day and being hit with a massive outstanding bill. You don’t have to be thinking about every pina colada you order at the pool bar to figure out if you are still within your budget.
The problem is that AI packages themselves add a fair supplement to the price of the holiday. Especially in a location like the Maldives where alcohol is especially dear, giving guest unlimited access needs to be priced pretty high to make sure that they don’t drink the property out of all its profit. Unless you *really* like to drink, or you *really* value the peace of mind factor, I always counsel people against AI because it can add so much to your bill.
As a part of Kudafushi’s drive to be one of the best value 5-star resorts in the Maldives, it has introduced the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too (all the cake you want) package of the “Soft AI”. “Soft” as in “Soft Drinks” included. Kind of a “Full Board Plus”. That’s not just your waters (resort bottled still and sparkling) and fizzy drinks, but also a wide range of mocktails, coffees, teas, juices and even milk shakes (see bar menu above). On top of that, you are also allowed 2 beers from your mini-bar each day included in the price. And if you, are still hankering for a stiff drink but don’t want to budge from your budget, then the resort holds a cocktail hour every Thursday from 6:30 – 8:00 pm which serves free drink (and canapees to boot).
For decades, the dream of the digital revolution was the eco-friendly paperless office. Yet, despite the profusion of connectivity and devices, dead trees still seem quite prevalent in the world of administration. You can understand that there are just some areas and applications where electronic record keeping is just impractical. Like on a dive boat where water is sloshing around and the risk of loss is high. Still, despite the extra obstacles of its environment, the Sea Explorer dive centre Reethi Faru is one of the most radically paper-free operations I have come across.
And they have not had to invest tons of money into fancy applications and sophisticated electronics. Just some clever approached. Their innovation is simply to laminate all their forms and fill them out with easy-wipe markers. Once completed, the centre takes a smartphone picture of the phone and saves it electronically. Simples. They use this technique for their registration forms, nitrox logs, dive logs and every part of their business that needs something completed and recorded.
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ― Pablo Picasso
Joali has created one of the most beautiful Maldivian properties.
Lori thinks it is the most splendid of the 100 we have now visited (I couldn’t make such an assertion as there are just too many apples-to-oranges aesthetics to compare). For example, Soneva uses the natural rough-hewn materials as its design palette. LUX North Male Atoll opts for striking contemporary hues to reflect the natural beauty. Joali has made itself a garden of artistry depicting inspired interpretations of this paradise.
In the ethereal segment of the Super-Premium 5-star, the typical differentiator is the “Wow-factor”. Sort of an X-Factor for guest experience that makes the property stand out in a clear and explicit way. It’s not just incrementally ratcheting up the Michelin stars of the food, or exclusivity of the wine cellar, or the thread count on the linen, but rather a step-change element which makes the whole place stand out from any other. For Joali it is their island-sized gallery of art, inside and outside, which provides a ubiquitous museum-quality exhibition of creative renditions of the tropical and indigenous themes that frame it:
“You will be delighted when you realize that Joali is the first and only art-immersive hotel in the Maldives. The island is infused with interactive and experiential artistic pieces that you have never encountered before. The Art Map of the hotel pinpoint all the art and sculptural pieces you can discover. Some of these pieces are created in collaboration with artists and local arttisans in order to support the local community and to revive the artisanal works made in the Maldives. If you are a collector, some of these unique pieces will be available for purchase as well.”
One of my favourite kids activities in the Maldives are treasure hunts. Joali is like a treasure hunt of [artistic] gems for adults.
The collection includes specially commissioned works from the following internationally distinguished artists:
Ardmore Ceremics (South Africa)
Chris Wolston (USA)
Doug Johnson (Canada)
Teleksan Onar (Turkey)
Studio Glithero (Engaldn)
John Paul Phillip (USA)
Misha Khan (USA)
Porky Hefer (South Africa)
Nacho Carbonell (Spain)
Reinaldo Senguino (Venezuela)
Seckin Pirim (Turkey)
Soojin Kang (Korea)
·Zemer Peled (Isrea)
And the art is not just “of” the island, but “for” the island. Many of the pieces are immersive or experiential. You don’t just look at them…you use them. And in so doing you become a part of them. And one of the most prevalent themes in this languid paradise is relaxing. So many pieces are seats, settees and loungers (like John Paul Philippe’s chair shown below with Lori sitting on it). Perhaps none more so immersive than the flying Manta loungers.
The art is displayed across the property, but also each villa is packed with special pieces. And if you want to take an exquisite piece home, many are for sale at the resort boutique.
All underwater restaurants are stunning experiences, but they often come at an equally eye-watering expense. For starters, most are found at super-premium resorts that start at $1000/night. Then, enjoying the restaurant is an equally premium supplement to your already hefty holiday bill. When we visited You & Me, we were struck by how many luxury details the resort featured while its price was a relatively manageable by mere mortals. No part of the property more exemplified this reasonably priced luxury than their H20 underwater restaurant.
“Six-metres underwater, almost half a kilometre away from the pearly shores of our island is our greatest gift – H2O, the world’s best underwater restaurant, conceived by world-renowned designer Daniele Lago. With room for twenty-six guests, H2O’s seventy-four feet acrylic glass exterior is made to mesmerise. Nestled in a lush coral garden six metres below the sea this enchanting restaurant draws all manner of marine life to delight viewers.”
The first feature makes the restaurant truly accessible in the literal sense – a lift. For anyone who might have difficulty with the circular stairway descending into the depths of the resort’s lagoon, they have the option of taking the restaurant’s lift. Rare enough in Maldives resorts in general (I only recall seeing one at Velaa),
But the “accessibility” that benefits most of us is H2O’s relatively affordable price. I sort of hesitate to call out H20s “affordability” as its defining characteristic. The description might come across as a low-end version when it is absolutely anything but that. The dinner was sumptuously gourmet quality with a full menu of choice delicacies (see photo below). As our tour report made clear, we were utterly enchanted by our evening there (with the mesmerizing dinner show by the resident octopus).
The facility itself stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all of the other Maldives underwater restaurants at the super deluxe properties. In fact, its semi-circle fully glass arch is the state-of-the in these underwater rooms with only Hurawalhi and Rangalhi sharing this totally immersive submersion. The restaurant also includes some special aspects which make it distinctive in its own right – a reef restoration collaboration, a meteorological station, maybe the most unusual ingredient I have ever had in a meal anywhere not just the Maldives (stay tuned).
But if there is one aspect which will have the most impact on the most people it will be its quite reasonable price. I have simply met too many people who passed up the chance to experience this bucket list activity at other resorts because the price was too dear. To save money, they go in and have a glance and take a few selfies, but that is not even a fraction of the joy and adventure of spending a few hours under the ocean enjoying the toings and froings of the sea creatures like you were some sort of fellow resident. The big advantage of diving over snorkelling is that you get to linger underwater and see the creatures at their level (rather than just looking down on them). But even with diving you are limited to 60 minutes (not to mention all the faff and expense). At H20 you get to savour hours of undersea loitering. And all the while, lingering over delectable dishes and sipping fine wines or decadent cocktails as bonus treats to the experience.
The prices are $280 per person for dinner and $180 per person for lunch (we definitely recommend the dinner as you get to experience the transition from day to night of the aquatic world). It’s not cheap, but it’s considerably less expensive than the other alternatives in the Maldives. And remember, it’s not just a meal. It is a unique experience of a lifetime that includes and is accented by a meal.
H20 is the underwater restaurant by You & Me and the rest of us.
Not just a “Best of the Maldives”, but possibly the Best of the Best from the 2019 Tour, or at least the most enduring, as both Lori and I are still wearing ours back in Blighty – Ghost Net Bracelets. Faarufushi’s Marin Biologist Giulia Pellizzato working on retrieving “Ghost Nets” – fishing nets that have gotten snarled or caught up and so the fishermen just abandon them in the water where they continue to trap and kill sea creatures.
The nets themselves are made of nylon and so Giulia wanted to come up with a way to upcycle them rather than have them add to the landfill of the Maldives. She decided to unravel the strands of plastic twine that they were made of, and use that material to make some woven bracelets. The process is a bit labour intensive so she has a small stock now. She gives them out as a reward to guests who help her with her reef survey work on the island.
The blue and green of the material, coloured that way by design to blend into the ocean when fishing and not scare away the fish, evoke the tapestry of colour which makes up the Maldivian seascape. I’m not a big accessory person, but there is something heart-warming about wearing something that was removed from the Laccadive Sea and is now on my wrist rather than snaring turtles, dolphins and other tragically unfortunate ocean friends.
Per ritual, we checked the weather.com forecast for the Maldives the week before we departed. We tend to visit in July and pretty much the standard forecast is “Thunderstorms” EVERY day. But this time, several of the days showed the graphic above – pretty much a perfect depiction of Maldives weather in July. It combines in a single JPEG rain, cloud, thunder, sun. It’s basically the meteorological equivalent of saying “hell if we have a clue?!?”
One would think this profusion of thunderstorm forecasts would spark trepidation for our keenly anticipated trip to the tropical sun. It certainly does for a number of TripAdvisor Maldives Forum posters who fear their trip of a lifetime is going to be spoiled when they see these predictions. But, as I have described numerous times, you have to know how to interpret these forecasts.
When it says “Thunderstorms”, it doesn’t mean that thunder and lightning will be raining down on you from dawn till dusk. In fact, in many cases, the predicted storms hit at night when you are tucked comfily in your cozy villa and when you wake the sun is breaking through the clouds to dry up the puddles littering the sand-scape. The thing is that most of these storms come in quite isolated “little black rain clouds” (as Winnie the Pooh would say). Sometimes we entertain ourselves sipping cocktails and watching these storms approach our island and placing bets as to if it will hit us. It gets closer and closer with the sheets of rain becoming more and more visible. Sometimes it just bypasses us completely. Other times, it hits us full on and we scamper for cover while it passes over for a few minutes.
The video below is a classic example of one of these isolated “showers” we filmed at Faarufushi. We had just emerged from snorkelling (so a bit damp already) and the heavens just opened up on us. Strangely, the day was quite sunny and when you looked all around you saw plenty of blue sky. It’s just that one particularly sodden cloud decided to dump its precipitation on us then and there.
As I was flying amidst these mid-summer clouds themselves, I perused the Trans Maldivian Airways Magazine “Island Skies” piece from Eleonora Fiorini titled “It’s Always the Right Time to Visit the Maldives”. He starts off noting himself “Bruno’s father used to visit the Maldives islands every year for a month in July, and every time, he never had more than just a handful of consecutive days of rain.” The article goes on to look at Bruno’s meteorological study of the area explaining why Maldives weather is “basically nice all year round”. ]
First of all he noted that the Maldivian weather is, by definition, unstable saying “The climate at the Equator is like a boiling pot, and you have to guess where the next bubble will come up” (and micro”storms” like the shower in the video below is a perfect example of a little bubble of weather).
Constant Low Atmospheric Pressure – “first index of weather instability”
Surrounded by Hot Water and Humidity – “it is enough that the atmospheric pressure drops slightly for the air around to raise enormous quantities of moisture from the ocean, dragging them into the atmosphere where they quickly condense generating clouds and downpours in a short time.”
But what the equatorial conditions do to volatility, they also do to moderation:
No Coriolis Effect – “…Which allows huge amounts of energy to be stored in the atmosphere, no hurricane can occur in the Maldives, and bad weather doesn’t last long.”
Low Moisture Accumulation – “The atmosphere is not able to accumulate amounts of energy so the bad weather episodes cannot last weeks as in other parts of the world.”
Highly Localisation – “If it is raining on our island, chances are that the sun shines brightly on a island located two sand banks south
This tour review is not just marking the end of another year’s island hopping to do research for the Maldives Complete website, but actually marks a major milestone in our resort adventures. Our visit to LUX* North Male Atoll (LNMA) was the 100th Maldives resort we have visited. As best we can determine, we are the first non-professionals to have visited 100 resorts. LNMA helped us ring in the milestone in style with a lavish bed decoration (above) and a tasty treat (below).
All but 7 were overnight stays (to get the full 24 hours experience and explore a range of activities) which distinguishes us from the local Maldives travel pros who have probably hit a hundred, but with mostly short stop visits. The closest contender my fellow Maldives experts have identified is Michaela Reisner, who runs the a travel agency in Germany. She is at 96, and unfortunately for me will likely be the first to cross the “100 overnight stays” milestone when she tours in October. But, she is also a professional who is getting paid to do her trips so we are looking forward to being the first non-pro to hit 100 overnight stays during next year’s Tour.
The links between LUX* and Maldives Complete go deep over this century of visits. In the early days of the website, LUX South Ari Atoll (then “LUX Maldives”) was one of the earlier resorts we visited. We were especially embraced by their Resort Manager Dominic Ruhl and the Marketing Director Dolores Semanaro (who became a pioneer in the use of Twitter by Maldives resorts). We had a natural kinship in our appreciation of special touches and guest experience innovations. They were intrigued by this thing I had on the website called “a blog” where I celebrated them. Dominic even asked if I would do LUX’s blog, but I was maxed on Maldives Complete and didn’t want to introduce even the appearance of bias.
Fast forward to today, our LNMA visit was punctuated by another couple of longstanding friends from the Maldives who represented another of the site’s earliest and strongest supporters – Kurumba. Traipsing about, LUX’s Executive Chef Henry Jordan shouted out to me to say hello (see photo below). I had first met him when he was starting his culinary career at Kurumba and he remarked that I wrote the very first article about him (“Best of the Maldives: American Breakfasts – Kurumba”). He had gone on to a number of illustrious establishments including his own restaurant in Thailand and earning himself a Michelin star. Moreover, his boss at Kurumba, Dave Minten, is now the Corporate Executive Chef at LUX*. We had the pleasure of being hosted by him at Kurumba and even attended his wedding celebration there. When people ask me “Why do you do it?” (put so much work into the website for no money, in fact big expense), on of the reasons highest on my list is that I get to be a part of this diaspora of Maldives lovers whom I have be-friended over a shared love of paradise.
The resorts seem to be launching faster than we can visit them. Maybe a blow to my fantasies of “Complete-ness”, but at least maybe our odyssey in paradise will never end.
Green stars indicate resorts visited. Yellow stars indicate resorts not yet ivisted.