Patrick de Staercke’s Maldives general management goes back nearly as far as Maldives Complete (2010). Lori and I might have stayed at more resorts than anyone, but he has managed more than anyone – 4 (Vilamendhoo, Komandoo, Hurawalhi, Kuredu). We first met Patrick in the earlier days of Maldives complete (see photo below) when Maldives Complete was just getting going, hardly anyone had heard of a blog and “social media” was still in the early adopter stage. He was one of the GMs who appreciated the site’s comprehensiveness and welcomed us very warmly. Over dinner, we mused about all sorts of possibilities for guest offerings and resort enhancements. Many managers in the hospitality industry tend to hop around globe in their career, but Patrick has made the Maldives a second home with an unmatched tenure. We always catch up briefly at the World Travel Market trade event in London, but it is great that he has provided a Maldives exclusive interview to provide a snapshot of his professional life in paradise…
- What was your first ever job?
Working in my student bar at colleague I was 16 years old in Seaford Colleague Sussex England. We were paid in beer just great.
- What was your first job in hospitality?
When I was 18 I had a job in Lausanne as waiter and pot was for 6 months and loved it.
- What has been your favourite sighting on a house reef?
I love octopus so cool how they change color .
- What has been an idea (eg new dish, a new activity, a new offer) that completely failed?
Remote control boats do not do well in sea water who knew?
- What tropical or Maldivian treat are you most addicted to?
Sipping cocktails in the sun and sending pictures pretending that this is what a GM does every day.
- What treat from home do you most miss having easy access to?
My wife and child.
- What are your favourite parts about opening a new resort versus taking on an established one (and what is your favourite part about taking on an established one)?
The favorite part is the end and the product you have produced gets the feedback we are getting now is just a wow. All that hard work sweat, team work, is paid off when the guests are blown away from the resort but also the service. Job well done.
- If you had $1 million to add one single feature to Kuredu, what would it be?
I would have to invest in two areas as they are just as important upgrading guest rooms but also staff rooms as they are the reason to a resorts success.
- What’s one question I didn’t ask that you either wish I asked or were surprised that I didn’t ask (and what the answer)?
‘Do you have what it takes to make a difference?’ My proven track records show I will make a difference in enhancing both customer satisfaction and bottom line figures. What’s the secret to my success? Well that’s why I am so valued at CCR and have to keep that a secret?
Waffle, waffle, waffle! There’s a day for everything, it seems, and today happens to be Waffle Day (a Swedish tradition).
I always wonder why more resorts don’t add a touch of the exotic to ordinary dishes. Which is why when I like to fuss over the exotic soupcon added to the soup, or the delicate tropical ingredient added to the delicacy.
One example is Vilamendhoo’s coconut waffles. All resorts have a breakfast buffet and most serve have a pancake and waffle station. Just a touch of coconut turned Vila’s from an ordinary offering to an extraordinary extra.
For a more natural hang-out over water, take stroll down “Climbing Tree Alley” at Vilamendhoo. The nearly horizontal palm trees are nearly as iconic a shot of paradise as the sunsets and the turquoise lagoons. The palms start to grow this way by the water’s edge when erosion undermines the stability of their root system and on the water’s side and the start to gently tilt and eventually grow in that direction. You will find such orthogonal specimens across the Maldives, but Vilamendhoo has a particularly extended stretch of them along the northeast side which they have named after many people’s favourite activity on these arboreal jungle gyms.
Happy Chinese New Year!
Chinese cuisine is right up there with Maldivian and Indian curries as a common cuilinary feature of Maldive restaurants. In fact, it’s hard to go anywhere in the world without a Chinese dining establishment. I’ve eaten in many and I’ve not yet come across a specialty featured at Vilamendhoo of a ‘Chinese Fondue’…
“Seafood, beef, chicken and vegetables which you will cook in a simmering metal pot of stock at the center of your table. Truly delicious! Choice of chicken, vegetable, tom yam or miso soup. $40.00 Per person.”
Chinese expression for ‘bon appetit’ is ??? (mànmàn ch?!) which translates as ‘eat slowly’ which is easy to do with a relaxed fondue preparing each item individually.
This distinction could be a ‘Least of the Maldives’…’Least Tolerant of Eco-Abuse’. From making the most of broken coral (nature breaks enough with storms and other normal underwater goings on, thank you) to and island that is looking to make the very least broken coral…at least at the hands of (or more typically, at the feet of) unthinking guests.
Vilamendhoo has instigated a $500 fine for touching a whale shark or standing on coral. It is not just faux bravado either as the resort has $1,500 collected so far from infringing guests. The funds collected are used for reef preservation investments.
If I ever do a ‘Maldives Monopoly’ game, then one Community Chest card would have to be ’Step on coral…pay $500’.
It’s the optional extras that get you.
Just when we think we have gotten a great deal just within our budget, we come back a bit over-extended from all of the irresistible extras from souvenirs, diving, drinks and excursions. Special activities and special meals always seem to be a particular weakness for us and tote up some extra charges. But at Vilamendhoo, you can do both a superb activity and get a great meal all for $25! It is their Maldivian cooking class. You will work with one of their Maldivian chefs learning some of their traditional recipes as well as try your hand at preparing them for yourself.
Mastercard-friendly Master Chef!
“Bruce, you might want to try this.” That’s how Lori greeted me when I met up with her after her dive at Vilamendhoo after seeing side mount diving for the first time.
Side mount diving has a number of advantages for certain situations. It is very popular with cave divers for whom the tank can get in the way of narrow passages. But also, the configuration more easily allows for double tanking for people who want very long dives. It can also be advantageous for divers with back problems especially manoeuvring out of water.
The configuration requires special skills training both in the equipment and in diving itself. My wife Lori went on a dive with the Euro Divers dive master Hussein Ali who is a certified instructor in side mount. He teaches the PADI course offered there ($229 for course and $80 for certification) and the resort offers the equipment for guests interested in this unconventional approach
Tanks a lot!
The tour is done. Thankfully, we returned to England just in time a break in the 4 month downpour. The 27 degree, sunny days made the return transition less jarring. I’ve shared my daily initial impressions, and over the next week I will share in tour order some of my favourite ‘Best of the Maldives’ features that I uncovered. Not necessarily the biggest or most impressive ones, but ones that caught my fancy. Before then, here are some parting overall reflections on the Maldives after our stay.
- Flights to Premium – The inexorable tide of stronger and stronger quality remains as unabated. It’s not just the refurbs that turn tired fun-in-sun style holiday resorts into showcase luxury experiences. Even the value resorts and 4-star properties are raising their game with slicker looks and offerings.
- Shifting Bests – As the resorts constantly invest in new and better, I realised more this trip the need to revisit some of the ‘Best of the Maldives’ pieces that are now going on an eternity ago
- Ambient Music – Finally, the majority of resorts we visited seem to have shifted their music selection in the bars and lounges to more appropriately relaxing playlists of gentle acoustic tracks (sometimes taken from the spa music library) or something like a soft jazz instead of the tiresome top 40 pop selections that have prevailed in the past.
Weather – Another visit during the ‘monsoon’ season. The only two times that we felt the ‘monsoon’ (ie. bucketing down rain and very windy) was (a) while we were snorkelling at Vakarufalhi (underwater everything was fine), and (b) returning from our whale shark excursion (and we were all laughing at the dhoni wrestling with the bumpy seas). There were a few other passing Winnie the Pooh-esque ‘little black rain clouds’ who let loose a couple drops, but we barely felt them. The other dimension to ‘monsoon’ season is the breeze. Throughout the week there was near constant breeze. While this reduced the calmness of the water and the visibility underneath it (stirring up more sand than usual), Lori savoured the fresh breezes.
‘Best of Tour’ – maybe not ‘Best of the Maldives’, but a distinctive highlights to the tour trip…
- Gili – Lunch: tempura reef fish, seafood bisque
- Paradise Island – Nature interaction: Bats, birds (that land on your arm), a good snorkel meant we were doing our Dr. Doolittle thing for most of the stay.
- Lily Beach – Coral: Dense tapestry of vibrancy and colour
- Vilamendhoo – Dessert: German Chocolate Cake. Very hard for resorts to get puddings right and baked goods never seem particularly fresh or more-ish, but this cake was an exception.
- Maafushivaru – Tiny Size: We love the small island feel and Maafushi had the smallest
- Vakarufalhi – Snorkel: Complements of and compliments to effervescent marine biologist tour guide Tania.
- Mirihi – Dinner: Lobster with Champagne and Truffle sauce.
- LUX* Maldives – Special touches: My obsession, LUX* Maldives’ promise, and they delivered.
- Sun Island – Shark feeding: I’m still of mixed mind of this controversial practice, but the event was quite impressive.
- Holiday Island – Value: Hope for the average tourist to experience paradise without winning the lottery.
Results – Overall, I came back with…
- New Best Of Candidates –96
- Other Blog Pieces – 11
- Room Type Photos – 82
I made more friends and supporters, and gathered more insights and data for the database. But best of all was a first hand perspectives on 10 more wonderful Maldivian resorts so I could talk about them with more authority and perspective.
Best in class.
Any fighter (weight class), racing driver (engine class) or school athlete (age class) will tell you that the key is being best in class. Vilamendhoo makes a serious bid for the best 4 star in the Maldives. Leading contenders before for me were Kuramathi and Komandoo, but both of those have joined the inexorably rising premium tide and have re-positioned themselves in the increasingly crowded 5-star category. Despite a sparkling, top-to-bottom revamp, ‘Vila’ has stuck to its 4-star designation. The value extends beyond the room prices as all of the resort prices are reasonable. For example, their lobster dinner on the beach is only $60 (£37).
While Vilamendhoo has joined the herd stampeding to ever higher standards in the Maldives, it has broken away from the pack, part of a rare breed of superb 4-star properties there. The 4-star move is a smart one for customer delight. Rather than be yet another 5-star, it stands out as a 4-star. The key to customer satisfaction is exceeding expectations. And anyone coming to Vila expecting a 4-star resort is going to have their expectations exceeded. Everything is at least 4-star quality or better. And they have splurged on some typically 5-star touches like drench showers and an overwater spa. Lori and I have stayed in the poshest of posh hotels and are pretty fussy with our dining and sleeping, and we would be very comfortable and happy spending a long visit at Vila. I identified a further 6 Best of the Maldives candidates during our stay to be posted over the next few months.
Quality and value aren’t the only areas where Vila straddles having your cake and eating it. It also deftly hedges the raging ‘children’ debate (some love Maldives as a great destination for the family, while others prize the tranquillity that they fear children disrupt) by offering two areas – one welcoming children and the other exclusive to adults only. This solution is as effective as it is diplomatic. Visiting both pools, both bars, and both restaurants, they did each have a different vibe. And that is great…different strokes for different folks.
The thing that you have to keep in mind about the Maldives (and this is the root cause some perceived ratings inflation) is that the destination itself is a 6-star destination. You could put a cardboard box on the beach and it would still be close to a 5-star experience compared to many places in the world. In this context, Vila is a bit like Hagen Daz vanilla ice cream. It’s not particularly fancy with all sorts of elaborate gourmet mix-ins. Just sumptuous, delicious ice cream. Again, the Maldives – the waters, the reefs, the sunset, the palm trees – are like the best pie you have ever eaten. The resort is just the scoop of ice cream on top. And Vilamendhoo is a simply superb complement to such a tasty dish of paradise.
Post Script – The little tan blob in the right hand corner of the picture above (for the eagle eyed) was a sting ray passing by during our photo. Below Lori says a closer hello.
Having been an active TA Maldives Forum participant (“Maldives Complete”) for a while now, I’ve noticed that one does see the same sort of things come around as regularly as sting rays at feeding time. Discussions mosquitos, weather, snorkelling, children, snorkelling children, whale sharks. Many of these have been helpfully turned into FAQs by the Destination Experts (DEs). Obviously, one that comes around very regularly (about one out of every ten posts I discovered) is the question “Which resort?”. With over a hundred resorts to choose from and a few dozen more in the works, we can all appreciate the dilemma.
But for all of the extensive choice, I found it curious that some resorts seemed to dominate the Forum while other great ones were virtually non-existent. I wondered whether it was just my perception so I did a little test. I pulled the Maldives Forum posts for the past six months (August through January) and simply logged any resorts mentioned in the post title. Not extremely scientific as an indicator, but easy, effective and objective.
Vilamendhoo came out the most popular resort enquired about. But just only as they pipped Reethi Beach 49 mentions to 48 over the last 6 months. Rounding out the top 5 were Kuramathi (40 mentions), Lily Beach (38), and Biyadhoo (37). The lions share are shown above which you can click on to see in a clearer, larger version.
I was also intrigued by the quite prominent resorts that have never come up on the forum at least as an explicit post. Many were Italian oriented resorts more like to go to an Italian language site – Alimatha, Dhiggiri, Gangehi, Kihaadhuffaru, Madoogali. Other were pretty exclusive so that the butlers probably book the travel – Banyan Tree Madivaru, Dhoni Island, Nika, The Rania Experience. There was clearly an bias towards the lower priced resorts in terms of mentions. Admittedly, while there are typically fewer rooms/guest on the more expensive/exclusive islands, the modest difference in bed number was not enough to explain the quite extreme difference in post numbers.