Tour 2021: Soneva Jani

Soneva Jani - Sonu

I might have to break my own advice with Soneva Jani.  My most frequently asked question is “What is the best resort?” and my steadfast reply is “There is no ‘best’ resort overall…just the ‘best resort for you’.”  Each resort has its own individual personality and distinctions that appeal differently to different people.  The question is like asking, “What’s the best ice cream flavour?”  But, I’m afraid that after 20+ years of visiting the Maldives and 100+ Maldives resorts stayed at, Soneva Jani might just be my “best resort” (or at least “best” in the “big island” category).  It is my “Rocky Road” (my favourite flavour) of resorts.

When I make that “best” assertion, I am not really talking about the most desirability because that is so individual and so subjective.  For starters, Soneva Jani doesn’t have the classic house reef and that is an absolute deal breaker for many Maldives afficionados.  Secondly, Jani is one of the most expensive standard villas (not talking about the special “Presidential” one-offs often found on islands) which is a wallet-buster for many.  Finally, the property is not quaint, but expansive and imposing.  It is in the top ten of largest islands and the two sets of jetties extends its reach even further.  Not great for the people who come to the Maldives for that diminutive plot of sand in the middle of the ocean experience.

When I talk about the “best”, I am really talking about the resort as a creation.  As an almost artistic rendition of the paradise experience.  Like the art-world itself, the collection of tropical styles found in the Maldives is quite varied – sleek post-modern, traditional artisan, baroque ornamentation.  Soneva’s style would best be described as neo-rustic fantasy.  It takes the primitive naturalism of a Swiss Family Robinson mystique and propels it into the future with imaginative innovation.

The Soneva group has long been a standard bearer in the Maldives for creativity and innovation especially with aesthetics, wellness and sustainability. Like most masterpieces, the property is the culmination of many studies (many of which are themselves considered prized works, for example Picasso’s 42 studies for “Guernica”).  In the water villa, you could certainly see the layout, material and other design features that germinated in the early works of Gili Lankanfushi (originally “Soneva Gili”) and Six Senses Laamu.  But the Jani product is expanded, refined, updated and innovated.  Soneva Jani is to Maldives resorts what Segrada Familia is to cathedrals – futuristic and primal at the same time.  The apotheosis of the craft in a jaw-dropping, whimsical tour de force where nothing is ordinary down to the finest detail.

As much as I adore all of the inspired aspects of Jani, it does cause me a bit of inconvenience.  So many of my heretofore “Best of the Maldives” posts are made obsolete by Soneva taking so many heretofore leading features just a step further: eg. Crab Shack (Finolhu), Honey (Gili Lankanfushi), Swing Chairs (Malahini Kuda Bandos).  Jani hasn’t just outdone others, but they’ve leapfrogged Soneva itself in some areas.  For example, Soneva Fushi pioneered the outdoor cinema, but Soneva Jani takes it a step further with an overwater, even larger screen version.  It’s like Soneva is a catalogue to “Best of the Maldives” features.  Soneva Fushi already has the notoriety of the most “Best of the Maldives” posts – 76 (the next closest being Reethi Rah with 68).  Soneva Jani is like a “Best of the Maldives – Water Edition”.

A final treat to our stay was that I not only got to see *the* resort, I also got to meet *the* man behind the resort – Sonu (see photo above with Commercial Officer Carissa Nimah – unfortunately, the woman behind the resort, Eva, was not available at the time). For creativity and distinction, Soneva Jani is a bucket list resort in this bucket list destination.

Tour 2021: Biyadhoo

Biyadhoo tour

I have yearned to get to Biyadhoo for longer than any other resort I’ve haven’t seen yet. When I first started going to the Maldives in the 90s, it had a reputation for one of the best house reefs in the Maldives and terrific value. I never went because the apartment block lodging didn’t really appeal to the family, but we finally fit it into our post-pandemic return tour..

The value is still there and accented by a special promotion to induce people back in the early days where uncertainty remained high. I paid less per night for bed and breakfast than I sometimes pay for my bar bill at luxury properties. For about £100/nt, we couldn’t buy our dinner in the UK never mind A DAY IN PARADISE! It was the Lidl/Aldi of resorts – super cheap but limited choice, service and aesthetics. Nothing fancy, but still couldn’t really fault it for anything.

The premises on land significantly exceeded our expectations. I guess at those prices I was expected run-down and limited infrastructure, but instead the facilities and rooms were mostly smart and appealing. Mind you a few more licks of paint in certain places (like the duplex stairwells) wouldn’t go amiss, but the rooms were very attractive, clean, fresh and comfortable (they had a bit of a refurb a few years ago).

And there were plenty of expectation exceeding pleasant surprises. Their spa is brilliant with treatments cheaper than we can get at home (£50 for 50 minutes) and quality as high as the fanciest facilities. Lori even got a bonus creative little hair braiding by her therapist which she really liked (see below).

Some aspects were a bit of a mixed bag. The sand throughout the island – beach as well as interior paths and common areas like the bar – was exceedingly soft. Unfortunately, it was not possible to circumambulate (a word made for Maldives islands) the entre island as the far side was blocked from access. The dinner was superb (BBQ one night), but the lunches were quite mediocre. The whole place could do with a customer UX make-over to fix a plethora of small but annoying oversights and issues. For example, when we arrived a single woman handled the prolonged (over a half hour) registration of about a dozen guests that had arrived while three idle men stood at the registration desk doing nothing.

Unfortunately, the house reef (like so many in the Maldives) is a shadow of what its former self must have been. Hardly any live coral, and (not surprisingly as the obvious knock-on effect) very modest marine life. Still, the diving is great. We did a couple of dives with the resort’s Dive Ocean dive center where we enjoyed another serendipity encounter. As our dive master was registering us he looked at Lori’s PADI card and shouted to his manager, “Hey, Antonio…you certified this woman 20 years ago at Coco Palm!” The small world of small islands.

Biyadhoo - lori hair braid

Haven’t Seen Yet #18

Havent Seen Yet - scuba nutcracker

I did get to see the Euro 2020 Final though sadly not underwater…nor even in the Maldives. Which is where we usually are this time of year there on our annual research tour. Obviously, halted by the “Red” status of the destination by the UK authorities, we have re-scheduled for November when we hope things will be even more settled. Our trips allow us to ferret out things we’ve not yet seen despite 20+ years of visiting the Maldives, and so we often preface them with my bi-annual instalment of “Things I Haven’t Yet Seen in the Maldives”. Over the years, I’ve posted 323 of these (of which 34 I have now “Finally Seen” many of which the resorts who introduced them told me that they did so after reading my piece). Here is another score to add to the list I’ve rounded up over the past six months:

  1. Ocean Suncatcher / Ornament – Christmas ornaments are great gifts and I’m a bit surprised I don’t see more of them sold in the resort gift shops. Rather than shelf-cluttering chochkies, ornaments are seasonal aesthetic treats that remind us of our sunny times in the depths of winter.
    Havent Seen Yet - wave sun catcher
      
  2. Scuba Nutcracker – Nothing is more Christmasy than a nutcracker. And no nutcracker is more Maldivian than this special edition version by Really Cool Nutcrackers. Thanks Lori for not just discovering this gem (I collect nutcrackers and own over 100), but also for the custom “Maldives Complete” rendition for my birthday (see photo at top)!  It includes a “Maldives Complete” logo on the shirt (which she also gave me for my birthday) and “Paul Shark” shorts (which she gave me for last year’s birthday (and featured in the last edition).
    Haven't Seen Yet - scuba nutcracker
        
  3. Puzzle Station – Amilla had first puzzle we’d come across that was actually not just a Maldives scene, but also one of the island itself. It was a relatively trivial 100 piece affair. The classic format is the 1000 piece. These typically take several days to do (eg. 8 hours to do with a few people). They a great over holidays sitting on a table where people can come and try to find a few pieces. I would like to see a brilliant photo made into a puzzle in the gift shop, but also a puzzle set out on a public area table where people could pop by and work on it for a little while. Maybe if a short rain shower is coming down, guests could pop in an contribute to the puzzle for a little while. The resort could announce over social media when the puzzle was completed (and then start all over again or start a new one). Online photo production places make these custom photo puzzles very easily.
    Havent Seen Yet - puzzle
      
  4. Blind Date with a Book – If you prefer to lounge with the traditional beach read, here is another Turkish delight taken from a Dalaman resort that Lori goes to regularly. Not only does it have fun element of serendipity, but also the books are sterilised for COVID safety.
    Havent Seen Yet - blind date with a book
          
  5. Under the Sea Scratch and Draw – For more creative and less intellectuallty demanding fun, the “Scratch and Draw” books are great and this one especially thematically apropos for chilling at the villa for the little ones.
    Havent Seen Yet - scratch and draw book
        
  6. “Mermaids Drink Free” – A relatively well-known vintage sign and yet I haven’t come across it in the land of mermaids.
    Havent Seen Yet - mermaids drink for free
      
  7. “Papa Don’t Preach” Resort Collection – Resort wear for all visiting mermaids, “The Mumbai-based label started by Shubhika Sharma has launched a collection of swimsuits, cover-ups and beach accessories inspired and shot in Maldives.”
    Havent Seen Yet - bikini
      
  8. Naia Beach Swimwear – Their “Sustainable Swimwear” line is not only made from recycled fishing nets (giving new meaning to the term “string bikini”), but also is itself inspired by the Maldives.
       Havent Seen Yet - nada swim suit
       
  9. Sea Morgens Sustainable Swimwear – “SeaMorgens we only uses fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles, regenerated ocean fishing nets, and other household waste.”
    Havent Seen Yet - recycled swimwear
      
  10. Etro Striped Fish Print Cotton Shirt – Not to leave out the mermen, this Etro style is as stylish as it is suited to the destination.
    Havent Seen Yet - fish shirt
     
  11. Coral Crocs – Sunies “Sea and Ocean” sandal – Even Crocs can be stylish when infused with the spirit and aesthetic of the Maldives.
    Havent Seen Yet - coral crocs
     
  12. Treasure Island PJs – Even the littlest ones can become fastionistinas with this treasure island themed outfit by Little Outfitter from neighbouring Sri Lanka.
    Havent Seen Yet - treasure pjs
      
  13. Toddler Water Ski – With families surging as a segment in the Maldives, there’s no reason they can’t enjoy the watersports too.
    Havent Seen Yet - toddler water ski
      
  14. Electric Surfboard – Electric bikes all are the rage with the MAML crowd these days, so a bit of eco-friendly motorised watersport should be appealing.
    Havent Seen Yet - electric surf board
      
  15. Loo Sink – Common in Japan, the hand wash sink is placed on top of the toilet cistern so the waste water from washing your hands is re-used for the next flush.
    Havent Seen Yet - eco toilet
      
  16. House Reef Guided Tour – Audio tours are standard fare for the top flight museums and tourist sites. Why not a guided tour of a house reef? Plant small, discreet markers around the house reef and provide audio commentary that the snorkelers can listen to for each spot. Maybe a frequent resident creature lives there or some particularly interesting type of coral that might get overlooked, etc.
    Havent Seen Yet - guide reef tour
       

  17. Coconut Cup – This is coconut iced coffee, but a wide range of drinks could be served this way. Reminds me of the carved ice tumblers at the Ice Hotel. Sipping the cocktail *in* the ice (rather than the ice in the cocktail) provided a distinctive sensation to enjoying it. I have seen the coconut husks used for a variety of purposes in the Maldives, and often welcome drinks are served in whole coconuts (husk with outer green pod casing). But these drinks are delivered through a straw and part of the experience of this approach is to get a taste of the coconut meat on the “glass” rim. A tropical equivalent of salt on the rim of a traditional margarita.
    Havent Seen Yet - coconut drink
      
  18. Cocktail Coconut Rimmed Glass – Great idea for Pina Coladas, but absolutely perfect for a Coconut Margarita.
    Havent Seen Yet - coconut rim
      
  19. Da Hong Pao Tea – In a destination that offers up gold leaf pizza, elephant dung coffee, and $100,000 bottles of wine in the heartland of the world’s tea, the most exclusive tea in the world would seem to be a natural decadence. At £1000 per gram, it costs 25 times more than gold.
    Havent Seen Yet - fancy tea
      
  20. To’ak Chocolate – And for choccies, how about the most expensive sweet in the world, To’ak chocolate ($7 per gram) made with barrel-ageing techniques similar to those used by whisky-makers.
    Havent Seen Yet - toak chocolate
      

Tour 17 – KIHAA Maldives

KIHAA Tour

KIHAA is simply one of the best resort *islands* in the Maldives. No wonder people have been flocking to it for decades. I have coveted a visit for years for this classic property. It started as a simple divers’ haven, grew into an Italian “Club Vacances” and some refurb a few years ago. But it still retains a classic Maldives resort feel.

KIHAA achieves the rare island trifecta (the closest comparison is Anantara Kihavah):

  • House Reef – One of the best house reefs we have seen in recent years. CORAL! More than half of the reef was live coral (the “lumpy” coral varieties, eg. massives like favia or prorates, seem to be thriving better than the “branchy” varieties, eg. staghorn, fan, table). Dramatic topology. Easy access. Colourful schools of yellow striped convict tangs, sergeant major fish, Moorish idols. So good, that one of our Amilla dives came over to dive the Kihaa house reef.
  • Beaches – Big, white, wrap around beach not seen since Kihavah. Flour soft sand especially by the water’s edge. An active beach duo is cleaning it constantly. Great for sunset circumambulations. Beach dining every night (partly due to low occupancy).
  • Lagoon – Millpond calm lagoon with turquoise vistas and easy swimming (which was useful as the property’s pools were just being brought back on line after lockdown).

Furthermore, the island scale is pretty much as Goldilocks size – big enough to support good amount of infrastructure but small enough to walk around in under 20 minutes.

A resort like KIHAA demonstrates how difficult it is to pin a star-rating on a property. The island itself is a 5-star deluxe with its exceptional “trifecta” of beach, reef and lagoon. The resort also boasts exceptional sports facilities including two smart tennis courts and two first-rate squash courts as well as finely kitted out gym. The lodging is more the 4-star category with handsome styling (recently spruced up).

The operations are difficult to assess at this time given the COVID situation. After 10 months of mothballing, it is like re-opening a resort with lots of cleaning, maintenance, supplying, etc to get up and running. Like all Maldives resorts, the staff are scrambling to provide the best experience possible for the intrepid and anxious early post-lockdown guests, but they face intractable constraints on availability of personnel (who have to quarantine) and even supplies.

With the resurgent coral and the vintage villas, our visit very much felt like going back in time to our first magical visits to the Maldives years ago.

COVID PROTOCOLS – Take your temperature on arrival, all staff wear masks and sanitising stations are found throughout the island.

KIHAA Tour 2

Haven’t Seen Yet – 16

Havent Seen Yet - dolphine fruit cup

How fun is that above? (thanks Cori)

Missing our annual trip to the Maldives is not fun though.  SO I guess we will just have to continue to wallow in digital vicariousness.

Usually, this time of year we are in the Maldives on our annual research tour. I don’t think I’ve ever missed them more (especially sitting here looking out the window at the dreary rain in my woolly jumper). Right now I would be scouring the resort islands for new and distinctive features I still haven’t seen in my two decades of visits. And at the end, I would traditionally issue by bi-annual “Haven’t Seen Yet” update. Well, I may not be able to see more things yet, but I certainly have found a number of things that should be there:

  1. Aquatic Geode – These blue agate slices are simply so reminiscent of the Maldives tapestry of blues. Our daughter bought me a set of them to use as drink coasters, but they are simply lovely décor in their own right.
    Havent Seen Yet - blue geode slice
      
  2. Geode Towel – Love the colours and design. The tapestry of blue depicted on a pool-side tapestry.
    Havent Seen Yet - geode towel
      
  3. Beach Towel Cover – Clever way to make a beach towel better and hard loungers better.
    Havent Seen Yet - beach lounger cover
      
  4. Blue Tang Cloth – I came across this fabric looking for some material to have a custom COVID19 face mask sewn for me. Resorts could produce all manner of items for the resort or the gift boutique like face masks, sarongs, shirts, etc.
    Havent Seen Yet - blue tang cloth
      
  5. Colour Changing Swim Shorts – To impersonate a colour-camo-changing octopus, you can get your own pair of swim trucks which change colour when they get wet.

      

  6. Claudio Lugli Tropical Fish Shirt – I love these shirts, but unfortunately their tropical fish line is out of stock now. Maybe some resort can convince them to do another run.
    Havent Seen Yet - tropical fish shirt
        
  7. Whale Shark Legging and Top – NuWave’s leggings and top are great to not just see the whale shark in, but to *be* the whale shark.
    Havent Seen Yet - whale shark leggings
      
  8. Sharkasm T-Shirt – Loving it. No, seriously.
    Havent Seen Yet - sharkasm
      
  9. Silver Shark Bracelet – From the same makers as the Sharkasm shirt (Ocean Dose) is a charming rope bracelet with a shark charm (and available in 6 different colours).
    Havent Seen Yet - silver shark bracelet
       
  10. Shark Slippers – Wing-Tipped reef shark for the fishy cushy fashion statement.
    Havent een Yet - shark slippers
      
  11. Whale Shark Plush Toy – I love the whale size of this cuddly toy. Unfortunate about the “blow hole” painted on the top of the head (“whale sharks” are “sharks” not “whales” and so they don’t have blow holes).
    Havent Seen Yet - whale shark plush toy
       
  12. Ocean Sole – An exceptionally charming and innovative up-cycling company at its Indian Ocean neighbor Kenya. They gather up hundreds of discarded plastic flip-flops on the beaches and transform them into stunning, playful figures.
    Havent Seen Yet - ocean sole
       
  13. Shark Wine Goblets – For the more adult galeophiles to hold and savour…
    Havent Seen Yet - shark glasses
       
  14. Motorized Pool Lounger – Many pool loungers come with cup holders for your drink but not the self-propulsion to return you especially to the swim-up bar for a re-fill.



       

  15. Kayak Sail – Something to catch those gentle ocean breezes and make an outing even more lazy.
    Havent Seen Yet - paddleboard sail
       
  16. Water Boggan – Or less someone else do the work of pulling your around on the water on a matt that you can lie on, stand on or do jumping jacks on.

          
  17. Red Shark Bikes – Or less lazy, if your prefer. A step up from the previous ocean bikes noted way back in my second instalment.

       
  18. Exo-Lung – Could be ideal for house reef exploration.

       
  19. Coral Crochet – Or resorts can commission a gorgeous crocheted version of their reef for the reception. Check out the brilliant TED (2009) talk by Margaret Wertheim on “The beautiful math of coral” – “The frilly crenulated forms that you see in corals, and kelps, and sponges and nudibranchs, is a form of geometry known as hyperbolic geometry. And the only way that mathematicians know how to model this structure is with crochet.”
    Havent Seen Yet - coral crochet2
        
  20. Stephanie Kilgast Art – French artist Stephanie Kilgast is inspired by a range of natural delights especially corals and some other undersea creatures.
    Havent Seen Yet - gilcart art
      
  21. Sea Urchin Hats – After noticing his urchins carrying rocks, shells and even hermit crabs around aquarium, a Colorado aquarium enthusiast Wilson Souza started making them custom hats. Subsequent studies by marine biologist hypothesize that sea urchins don these hats (or shells other things they come across) for much the same reason humans do – UV protection from sunlight.
    Havent Seen Yet - sea urchin hats
      
  22. Golsa Golchini Art – Italian artist Golsa Golchini has a few pieces just right for the Maldives.
    Havent Seen Yet - golsha art
      
  23. Pool Roof – Not a “Roof Pool”, but a roof made out of a pool.
    Havent Seen Yet - roof pool
      
  24. Natural Pools – Like this one from Soneva, but Soneva Kiri (thanks Paola)
    Havent Seen Yet - natural pools
       
  25. In-Water Dining

    Bora Bora takes “in water” dining a step beyond a few tables temporarily immersed in the shallows.
    Havent Seen Yet - in water dining elaborate

      

  26. Tipping Breakdowns – Guests are always frustrated to know whether (a) they are tipping enough (they don’t want to offend or hurt any staff), or (b) they are tipping too much (this trip has already cost us a lot). It is complicated by the addition of mandatory service charges to all bills. In principle, this should relieve the headache as some “service” has already been provided for the staff, and I suspect that ad hoc tipping dropped considerably when that change was implemented. But still, there is an enduring sense that this service charge is just a basic amount and that additional bonus gifts are both welcome and done by a number of guests.  I think was would be very helpful is if a resort shared the profile of tipping with the TripAdvisor Forum. Something along the lines of:

    As you know, all Maldives resort bill include an amount billed for service charge which is shared among the staff. Because this amount is provided by law, we reassure guests that they are not in any way obliged to leave further gratuities. And yet, many guests want to leave further gratuities. And their generosity is frustrated to an additional degree because there is no guidance as to what is “minimum”, “average” and “exceptional”. In other countries, there are more accepted conventions. For example, in the UK, a 12% tip is considered a minimum, 15% is average and more than 15% is generous. Also, since there is no convention, people don’t have an idea of just how prevalent certain gratuity practices are. As a result, I am told that it would be helpful to share “what other people are doing”. This in not in any way intended as a prescription of what “you should be doing”. It is just information that get asked for regularly.
    · XX% leave no extra gratuities at all.
    · XX% leave very modest gestures of appreciation (for example, $10 or less to an individual staff member covering the whole stay).
    · XX% leave generous extra gifts (for example, $10 to $50 per staff member covering the whole stay).
    · XX% leave crazy generous gifts (for example, more than $50 per staff member covering the whole stay).I think this information will both help guests’ peace of mind and maybe even boost gratuity given at the resort. Those who are really tight will have solace in reading “Ah, ok, I’m not alone as XX% people also don’t give tips so it’s not just me.” But others will self-select and think “Ah, I want to be one of those “generous extra gift” people so I am going to leave that amount.
          

  27. Max Benjamin “Maldives” Diffuser – Gift from Lori from Christmas. Stocking these in the boutique makes a lot of scents!.
    Havent Seen Yet - maldives diffusers
        
  28. Electric Seaplane – Ok, which eco-minded resort is going to be the first to boast one of these babies??
    Havent Seen Yet - electric sea plane
        
  29. Mango Shaved Ice – Famous Taiwanese dessert whose tropical fruit and frozen temperature seem like a perfect treat for the Maldives.
    Havent Seen Yet - mango shaved ice
        

Maldives Tour 2019: LUX North Male Atoll

LUX North Male Atoll - tour 4

It’s always great to finish a trip on a high, and LUX* North Male Atoll (LNMA) wasn’t just a highlight of our 2019 Tour…it was one of the high points of twenty years of visiting the Maldives. Not just because it is an exceptional resort in its own right, and not because it represents so well the spirit of creative innovation that I celebrate in this blog with “Best of the Maldives” series that I research extensively on these trips, but also because it was in several ways a crowning culmination of the past ten years of Maldives complete – the 100th Maldives resort that I had visited (more on that milestone later in the week).

LNMA’s sister property, LUX South Ari Atoll is one of the top holders of “Best of” distinctions (48, 3rd highest). So I couldn’t wait to see what LNMA had in store. Of course, I spotted a number of familiar signature LUX* fun features right away like Phone Home, Message in a Bottle, and Café LUX. After over a decade of writing about the best and most distinctive in the Maldives (with over 1,400 written), it becomes all the more difficult to find things that haven’t been done before. And yet, I found more potential (I always do a bit of follow up research) “Best Of’s” at LNMA than the other seven resorts visited this tour (30 identified for them).

But LUX North Male Atoll goes beyond the collection of signature touches of flair and innovation. The entire concept and execution of the property is more striking in its ambition and execution than any of the other 100 I have seen. Its hyper-contemporary stylings are an Instagrammer’s dream looking like something straight off the pages of Architectural Digest. If Jonathan Ive (of Apple fame) designed resorts, I would expect him to come up with something like this with its brushed concrete with burr wood highlights and textured finishes. Or perhaps Jean Paul Gaultier as the edgy, ultra-modern aesthetic (and its location venue in middle of the otherworldly destination of the Maldives) is what I imagine the Fhloston Paradise to be heading towards.

LNMA is the latest property splashing out the brilliant white palate for the villas (and, well, all its buildings). White is a central colour to the Maldives palette (along with palm jungle green and the ubiquitous tapestry of blue from sea to sky). The luminous hue of the coral sands, wispy clouds and waves crashing on outer edge of atoll. The Santorini-esque amplifies the brightness of the sunshine and make the whole place dazzle.

Some traditionalists poo-poo such modern constructions. I think they would like all of the Maldives to be fitted out with old-fashioned thatched huts like some sort of tropical Williamsburg. But fusion of modern with tradition, fabricated with natural, can meld the best of both with innovative new approaches. Much like LNMA’s own Peruvian/Japanese fusion restaurant “INTI”, blending two different worlds for an entirely fresh and unique new experience.

Design isn’t just about scrumptious materials and artistic rendering. It’s also about achieving satisfying function through inspired form. LNMA gets so right what so many resorts get so wrong – the view. Every single villa has a roof deck that provides that extra vertical dimension (in a locale defined by its very horizontality) of taking in the Maldives’ stunning vistas. One of my biggest pet peeves with Maldives resorts is when they mess up a view, and one of the aspects I appreciate most is when they accentuate a good one.

My enthrallment with LNMA wasn’t just because of its own dazzling aesthetic, but also because it exploded a few of pre-conceived notions I had…

  • Myth #1 – Male Atolls Are Not Remote: Being the eponymous home of the capital, the main airport, its busy port and a tight cluster of the some of the earliest properties, the image in my head was that the Male atolls are all a bit close to the action and to get truly remote you need to hop on a plane to a far-flung atoll. But cruising the 1 hour speedboat transfer to LNMA, I realized just how massive North Male atoll is. Halfway through the journey, there were hardly any islands in sight and I felt as removed from civilization as anywhere I had been in the Maldives.
  • Myth #2 – North Male Doesn’t Have Great Snorkeling/Coral: Again, I think this myth stems more from the 20 minutes radius around Male where tourism began and the growth of construction and activity have certainly stressed those reefs, but out at LNMA, the house reef was the most vibrant with coral growth on any we have seen for years.
  • Myth #3 – Islands on Reef Shelfs Have Weak Snorkeling – I’ve always associated the best house reefs with the inner atoll gum-drop islands. I thought that the islands at the atoll’s edge sat on broad plateaus where on one side the reef was inaccessible (with open ocean waves pounding on it) and on the other side far away and sloping without much drop-off. But LNMA’s house reef starts a few feet from east water villa jetty and goes directly to the overwater spa jetty (conveniently marked with a series of red buoys) making it extremely accessible with as lovely a drop-off as you’ll find.

These revelations of LNMA reminded me of my first visit to Singapore. My expectations were a bit apprehensive as reading about it, I feared that it might just be too contrived. I also thought that the slick aesthetic would probably be limited to a very contained and exclusive part of the city. But this urban metropolis wowed me. It wasn’t just modern, it was space-age. It wasn’t just glossy, but it was sensible and easy to take it. And it wasn’t just certain neighborhoods, but the modern quality pervaded the entire urban landscape.

Some people will be mesmerised by the many viral photos of LUX North Male Atoll which seems to just epitomise luxury and they won’t be disappointed. Others will be wary of its edgy aesthetic, but I they might just find that this spark of panache provides a bright new look at piece paradise tucked away on the remote edges of its namesake.

LUX North Male Atoll

Maldives Tour: 2019: Kudafushi

Kudafushi - Tour 2019

Don’t need all the fussy bells and whistles, but do want top notch quality throughout? Check out Kudafushi. It describes itself as an “entry level 5 star”. And it is positioned precisely where so many visitors want to be. They want to splash out for the luxury of seeing this paradise, they want to be assured of a solid standard of quality for the basic creature comforts, but on top of that they don’t really want to pay extra for lots of bonus amenities and luxuries that don’t exactly float their boat.

It’s an intriguing sub-segment, as I have seen a number of quite fine properties in the Maldives position themselves as “4+ stars”. So, what would be the difference between them and a starter for 5? I think the key thing is consistency. A 4+ might just have some quite exceptional features, but it also might have a number of aspects which really don’t make the 5-star grade. These resorts position themselves a “4+” so that guests are pleasantly surprised by the 5-star features without being slated on TripAdvisor for some of the aspects not quite at 5-star standard.

The property and its proposition reminded me of the UK High Street icon Marks and Spencers. “Marks and Sparks” are renowned for having simply the best quality, at a reasonable price, food and clothing. Smart looking basics like your first business suit, or your underwear. Curiously, while the clothing line is dependably mainstream, the food court section is a cut above most grocery competitors. Similarly, Kudafushi’s fare was quite distinctive. A destination leading pasta station, jumbo grilled prawns and homemade ice cream.

One area that was especially distinctive was the house reef. It had that relatively uncommon combination of both great lagoon snorkelling (lots of big coral blocks in shallows for easy snorkelling for beginners) and a rich, steep house-reef drop off. We encountered a lovely turtle in the shallows that we swam with for a while (he seemed totally nonplussed by our presence) and a manta had visited the house reef just a few days prior.

Kudafushi ticks every box for all the fundamentals of a great property. Lori (whose long and unruly hair is particularly challenged in the humid atmosphere and salty water of the Maldives) noted that even the shampoo in the villa was exceptionally good.  Kudafushi haven’t splashed out on lots of flashy design or opulent features, but every aspect is quite simply first rate. Smart and high standard throughout from the minute you arrive to the minute you leave.

Tour 9 Review

Tour Review

Another annual pilgrimage to the sacred destination of our dreams concludes. The sunrises, snorkel spottings, villa photoshoots, property tours, transfers, treatments, pina coladas, sunsets and star-gazing has finished. Now begins the remote re-living of our time cataloguing the photos, editing the videos, transcribing the notes, emailing the follow up questions, updating the database and reliving the our time there from afar.

Here are the vital statistics of Maldives Tour #9 (Complete-Ly by the Numbers)…

  • Resorts Visited – 8
  • Days of Travel – 12
  • Seaplane Rides – 4
  • Average Air Temp – 34 degrees
  • Average Water Temp – 29 degrees (gulp…comfy for us but less so for the poor coral polyps)
  • Rain – 1 full day in aggregate (most of one day and a few showers on a couple others)
  • Snorkel Spottings – 15
  • Dives: 3
  • Room Profile Photos Added – 56
  • Dive Charts Added – 34
  • Best of the Maldives pieces identified – 52

This whirlwind exploration of Dhaalu anew, Lhaviyani renewed and assorted undiscovered corners of Kaafu brings our lifetime total of resorts seen to 91. According to everyone we have spoken to, this puts on the top of the table as world leading visitors (Though Michaela Reisser is chasing us down. If she catches us, I might have to refine our bragging rights to being the “amateurs”, or true aficionado, with the most visits as she is a travel professional).

Tour 2018 total summary

Despite our years for Maldives adventures, this trip still provided a number of “firsts”. In addition to the slew provided by NIYAMA (First Entire Day of Rain, First complementary bottle of champagne…actually drunk. First Bath, First in-room movie), here are a few other firsts…

  • No Shoes – From the very outset. This trip was our first literally “no shoes” visit to the Maldives. We typically change into our flip flops at the first resort and don’t pack them again until we are heading back to the airport. But this year, we actually wore our flip-flops to the airport.
  • Underwater Dinner – We have had an underwater massage, underwater night show, underwater cocktails, but we have never sat down for a dinner.

An interesting note is that despite 20 years of habit and ritual, there were a number of things that we distinctly didn’t do. Not really intentionally, but it just sort of happened

  • Swim in a pool, even a private pool dip – The key reason why we didn’t avail ourselves of our private pools when we had them (and increasingly common amenity) is that the previous week had a lot of rain so the pools were quite chilly. Usually, they are baking in the sun and are a relaxing tepid temperature, but I think the ocean (sadly) was warmer than the pools most of the time.
  • See as many things snorkelling – The coral damage of the rising ocean temperatures exacerbated by the recent El Nino as well as the COTS infestation has been well reported, but this trip was the first time we seemed to see less marine life on the coral-denuded reefs. Of course, that is the obvious knock-on effect to coral devastation. We didn’t see but a single reef shark snorkelling (the puppy sized ones still frequent the shallows) and the fish soup just seemed a bit thinner.
  • See a great sunset – One of knock-on effects to the July travel, with its variable partly cloudy skies and passing rainstorms is that there is really too many low lying clouds to allow for a great sunset. Their low altitude means they reflect less of the sun when it dips below the horizon. Also, the excessively thick collection of clouds stand between you vantage point blocking the sun itself as it sets in the distance.

Riding back on the speed boat transfer to Male airport, I mused about a few reflections and general observations about the overall tour…

  • Intimacy with the ocean – The ocean dominates everything. In contrast, when we were at a similarly tiny island in Indonesia, you still felt the distinctly “on land” and surrounded by as much land as ocean. Some Maldives purists don’t like water villas claiming they are not native (an invasive architectural species from Bali) not to mention that constructing them can be environmentally disruptive. But I feel that they are in keeping with the essence of this ocean intimacy.
  • Value is Back – So many people have bemoaned the gentrification of the Maldives resort neighbourhood. It seemed that everyone favourite 3-4 star resort was being relaunched as a glitz super-deluxe property at several times the price. The whole guesthouse movement has replenished the stock of rooms at the budget-priced bottom end. But also, a slew of new openings have targeted the value-priced middle market in recent years. Increased ease of operation with Maldives tourism infrastructure, local skill sets and know-how, supply chain has made is easier and cheaper for resorts to build and operate which will help temper holiday inflation.
  • Salt Shakers – Why does any resort feature these? They never work. Even when a few grains of rice have been mixed in the salt. I guess there is a potential hygiene issue with using salt cellars instead if everyone put their fingers into the well, but they could use little spoons (which is the mannerly way to use a salt well).
  • Mother and Child Reunions – One final observation is that during our tour we encountered several single women travelling with a young son. Is this some sort of highly specialised niche that the Maldives could cater to?
  • Participant, Not Spectator – One of the reasons why I do Maldives Complete, is because I am more of an “active participant” than than “passing spectator” in this amazing part of the world. I’m that way with other parts of my life like sports where I play many sports to a high standard, but don’t really watch that much. This trip reinforced that dimension as the first half of the tour seemed like a reunion of old friends – Bunyamin, Aima, Nazeeh, Mahudhee.

While it all seems to many like a glorious holiday, each of these trips is quite a bit of work. It is actually more work these days to get material because the Maldives Complete website is more complete very year. Resorts do a better job of publishing more information to the web, and what they don’t publish, their guests share amply on social media. Still, the visits are invaluable to identify the smallest and least conspicuous of details as well as to continue to build relationships with the people behind this paradise.

Lori and I have a set ritual that we perform with every single property in order to get the maximum benefit from the visit:

  1. Take picture in front of resort sign (for the resort overview post).
  2. Take island tour (site inspection) seeking out material and taking photos for…
    1. Best Of the Maldives pieces
    2. Room Type profiles (and sometimes the Resort Profiles as well)
    3. TripAdvisor and site followers requests for information
  3. Visit the dive center to find missing dive sites and dive charts.
  4. Snorkel the housereef.
  5. Sunset pina colada (this one isn’t that much work).

Then, when we leave the resort, the work isn’t finished as we still have to…

  1. Write and send a follow up email to resort to request additional material and details.
  2. Load the material and photos onto the site (with necessary formatting).
  3. Load house reef sightings into Snorkel Spotter.
  4. Write and post Tour Report.
  5. Post TripAdvisor Forum post.

After this tour, our path across the Maldives is shown below in a map of where we have stayed (all the green stars are places visited and all the yellow ones are all the others which are on our bucket list). Next year we visit Raa atoll which is the last atoll we have not yet visited which has more than two resorts on it. We can’t wait!

Tour - map of visited resorts 2018

Maldives Tour 2018–Hurawalhi

Hurawalhi - tour 2018

Hurawalhi is a “5+” star resort. I could almost make the case that it is a “6 star” resort, but the marketing director for the resort says “Wait till you see Kudadhoo” (Champa’s latest offering under development just across the water along their chain of properties at the top of Lhaviyani atoll).

One of our frustrations in past was that everyone in the Maldives was calling themselves a 5-star (over 60% of the resorts in the Maldives Complete database are listed as 5 star). And you will find some real divergences in the quality of what is being called 5-star. On one end are properties that are quite indistinctive but get away with over-rating with a “5-star” label because, essentially, the destination is 5-star. People come and no matter how tired the décor and limited the offerings, the place still seems like a 5-star experience because the guests are blown away by the stunning surroundings of the landscape and seascape. I have often said that you could have a 5-star experience in the Maldives staying in a cardboard box on the beach.

On the other extreme are properties that really don’t seem right to call ‘just’ 5-stars. The ultra-deluxe properties that seem to defy any sort of rating scale. I tend to call these “super premiums”. They are really in a class by themselves and hence some people in the industry refer to them colloquially a “6 star” properties (the Burj Al Arab took a bit of stick when it opened, referring to itself as the world’s first “7-star hotel”).

The whole star rating system is a bit of a mess. It started as a hospitality industry standard tick-box exercise for certain amenities on the resort (eg. the number of power outlets and whether you had a bidet or not). People confused the hotel “rating” with the review ratings of guides like Michelin and Zagats. Then, crowd-sourced ratings came to the web on popular travel sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com. These ratings tend to reflect another aspects altogether. They are really about ‘performance against expectations’. As a result, you can get real dives getting ‘5 star’ reviews because the experience is so much better than the guest expected for the pennies that they paid. Furthermore, all the reviewing is basically being done by amateurs.

Given the power of ratings from sites like TripAdvisor, many properties now seem to be going in the direction of under-rating. They call properties that could easily pass as 5, a 4-star. But they often append the now popular “+” designation to note a cut above the rest of class with a bit of style and distinction, but (sensibly) fear exaggerated expectations if they don the 5-star moniker. It is a way of saying “4 star with 5 star touches”. All of this diatribe about rating is to provide context for my description of Hurawalhi. Hurawalhi is the first resort I have found where this approach would be appropriate at the 5-star level, ie. 5+ star resort.

Hurawalhi is very much a 5-star star through and through. Every design feature, attention to detail, material choice, offering, etc. are all specified at the first class level. Natural wood everywhere (and the wood shingled roof, instead of thatch, which will save lots of total cost of ownership). Think Rocky Mountain Lodge or Chamonix Chalet, not native hut. Every single fixture and external appliance is tastefully and craftily covered. Their flawless attention to detail with this simple, natural material shows that you don’t need Italian marble and exotic materials to produce a stunning environment. Just elegant design with quality materials.

The biggest above-and-beyond the world of typical 5-star is the resort’s underwater restaurant, 5.8. I’ve posted about the 5.8 previously in its construction stage where its sheer ambition presented so much promise…and expectations. But now I can put a bit of first-hand perspective into the account. The food doesn’t get much better than this. “Smoked lobster and sea urchin mousse served on a garland crest with cognac emulsion, lobster salsa, squid ink brittle, poached langoustine tail and topped with beluga caviar served 5.8 metres underwater.” Yes, that. We’ve eaten at several 3-star Michelin’s in our foodie adventures and 5.8 stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

But the real experience is the room itself. I have visited several of the Maldives underwater facilities, but I had never actually taken the plunge (so to speak) of dining in one. More than any other one I have visited, Hurawali has done an exceptional job of placing the restaurant and enhancing its location. One side is right on the edge of the house reef drop off and the other opens to the expanse of the lagoon. Between the two, through the floor to ceiling glass wall is a sort of canyon that provides a view of coral and fish in sort of a raked fashion. Like many other underwater rooms, they have done a bit of reefscaping to provide greater visual appeal and to attract more fish. But a clever little twist is a sunken mini-dhoni ‘wreck’ in the lagoon which not only provides an added lure for reef fish (and a sequestered moray we spotted), but also adds a bit of eerie mystique to the whole vista.

While they do both a private breakfast and a lunch seating, the best time to go is for dinner. You are greeted with a sunset cocktail while the sky is still bright and underwater is still vibrant with sunshine piercing into the water. But as the 7-course affair progresses, the light subtly changes with every course and so does the marine life and activity. Until by dessert, it is completely dark and the nocturnal activity is in full swing. And it’s not just the sea creatures that are a buzz. The whole place has a unique camaraderie of a unique shared experience. Diners commenting to each other on curious spottings, asking questions, sharing reflections, helping with photo taking.

Objectively, 5.8 is the greatest (in size) underwater restaurant in the world. But subjectively, 5.8 might just be simply the greatest underwater restaurant, full stop. And Hurawalhi might not let you call it a 6-star, but it is so much more than just 5 stars.

image

Haven’t Seen Yet #12

Drone spotting

I also do Maldives Complete to ferret out new discoveries. Some people seek out and collect quirky and distinctive commemorative plates or garden gnomes. I collect distinctive features in the Maldives. Every time I find or someone forwards me something I haven’t seen, I get a buzz similar to a train spotter seeing a 66779 Evening Star.

It’s now become a semi-annual tradition (after my anniversary date in December and before our Maldives departure in July) to share the latest compilation. This group of 24 brings the total to 285. I’ve actually had to start a spreadsheet to keep track of all the “Haven’t Seens” so far (to help me make sure I’m not repeating myself). Of those, 24 have since appeared (with actually a number of resorts telling me that my piece inspired them to acquire or add the feature). They fall in to the following main and secondary groupings…

  • Activity: Water Activity, Entertainment, Romance, Mermaid, Kids
  • Infrastructure: Villa, Shopping, Digital, Seat, Décor, Glow, Spa, Artistry, Gadget, Eco, Service
  • Food: Dining, Frozen, Drink, Lobster, Coconut
  • Water: In Water, Underwater, Soak, Pool, Boat

Here’s the latest selection which happen to add up to an Advent Calendar’s worth with 24 treats…

    1. Drone Spotting – For Mantas and Whale Sharks. The dive boats waste so much time going back and forth between known haunts. Boat captains shared sightings information, but a drone would easily spot these creatures and give the search a broader perspective. Much like the African safaris which use helicopters (and increasingly drones) to spot wildlife movements. [ABOVE]
    2. Underwater Topology Table – Great for diving briefings (for a house reef dive) or for just bringing the underwater landscape to view.
      Topology Table
    3. Lego Model – Maps are one thing for a birdseye perspective of the property, but a Lego model of a resort would be particularly cool especially for a child-friendly property. A Lego model that included a model of the house reef would be pretty amazing.
      Havent Seen - Lego model
    4. Lego Set – The Maldives are sort of the caricature of deserted tiny islands of pirate folklore. When our kids were little, we used to set up treasure hunts for them around the island, and a number of resorts now offer the same. For the young crowd, this Lego set seems the perfect memento for a gift shop.
      Havent Seen - Pirate Lego Set
    5. Pirate Brio Train Set – For an even more upscale block model set, BRIO is the classic. While the notion of trains in the Maldives might be a bit far-fetched, not much more imagination required than pirate treasure I suspect…
      Havent Seen - Pirate Brio
    6. Stick-On Soles – For protecting against the occasionally sharp shards of coral in the sands without the annoying flip-flop tan lines.
      Havent Seen - Stick-on Soles
       
    7. Underwater Light Show – Empty lagoon a bit boring without the dramatic drop-off and marine life of a house reef drop-off?  Why not bring it to life with an underwater light show?  Laser shows are a staple at big events like galas and concerts.  A chance for a light artist to explore creations projecting lasers into or under the water.
      Laser show
    8. Pool Disco Light – Or for a more modest light show especially for a poolside disco (eg.  W Maldives, Finolhu), these look like a bit of aquatic fun.

    9. Ocean Wave Projector – Instead of lighting in the water, you could bring the water in with light. Might be good for resorts that have spa that aren’t overwater.
      Havent Seen - Water Projector
    10. Reef Engineering for Surfing – The east reef of Meemu is an extraordinarily long stretch. But the waves break unevenly because the underlying reef which causes them is uneven. I was wondering if you could “even” it out a bit with some Reefscaping to create the longest surf break in the world.
      Surf reef
    11. Surf Dock Another bit of surf engineering this time on top of the water is surf dock which makes access to the breaks that much easier.  Maldives surfing is known for its long, gentle breaks which are great for beginners and I suspect a surf dock would cater to them that much more.
    12. Floating Beach – Or your overwater engineering could simply help you to chill out swaying and bobbing with the ocean, while being dry and stable on firm platform (Hillside Beach Club, Fethiye Turkey).
      Havent Seen - Floating Beach

    13. Water Go-Kart –  For a bit more speedy bobbing around the water, how about an electric water go-kart?

    14. Jet Pad – A bit faster bobbing about the ocean…

    15. Water Car – Even faster?

    16. Jet Capsule Yacht – How about this transfer shuttle?

    17. Fishing Camera – A luxury techno-yacht calls for some luxury gadgetry for some deep sea fishing.

    18. Mask with GoPro Mount See for yourself where the fish are and bag snaps.
      Snorkel mask with gopro mount
    19. Wallpaper LED TV – Watch your underwater videos still still in the water.  Coincidentally and curiously advertised on this photoshopped Instagram pic in the Maldives (their marketeers must have had the same idea I did).
      Havent Seen - Wallpaper TV
    20. Shared Cocktails – For a location renowned for honeymooners, a bit surprised this hasn’t cropped up.
      Havent Seen - Shared Cocktails
    21. Lobster Tempura – Lots of Asian fusion in the Maldives and lots of the ultimate luxury seafood – lobster – but not yet the classic tempura preparation. I had this dish at Circus in London and it was quite tasty.
      Havent Seen - Lobster Tempura
    22. Coconut Sugar – A less processed for of sugar, many people consider it to be a healthy alternative to cane sugar with more nutrients. Made from the sap of the coconut palm flower, it seems like an opportune venture for some Maldivian entrepreneur.
      Havent Seen - Coconut Sugar
    23. Salad Station – Salad Bars, yes. But a station where a chef freshly cuts and prepares your salad to order, no. Inspiration from Hillside Beach Club in Fethiye, Turkey.
      Havent Seen - Salad Station
    24. Disabled Staff – Pararowing. Have any resorts recruited disabled individuals and supported their adaptive needs?
      Disable staff