2021 Tour Review #18

Tour 18 - seaplane

What this tour limited in (barely) post-COVID constraints it made up for with long anticipated visits. Tour #18 was short (with even fewer resorts covered due to COVID monitoring alerts), but in a number of different ways included a triad of 3 of resorts would most want to visit:

  • Biyadhoo – The longest standing, most anticipated and probably cheapest resort we haven’t visited.
  • Soneva Jani – The most coveted and probably most expensive resort we haven’t visited.
  • Amilla – About the only resort where we will break our rule to not re-visit resorts.

General destination observations:

  • Local Island High Rises: Transferring to Biyadhoo in the South Male Atoll I was struck by the number of “high rise” (over 2 stories, up to about 8 stories) buildings on local islands. Of course, with horizontal acreage at a minimum, going vertical makes absolute sense. It does erode some of the primitive vibe to the surroundings, but the Maldivians obviously should not be trapped in some yesteryear nostalgia for primitive aesthetic of huts on islands.
  • Inter-Island Transfers: The whole COVID process has gotten so much smoother than when we came late December. And the process is massively easier than our trip to another archipelago, the Azores, that we visited in July (17 pages of forms required). Now, BA has a methodical app to check out your COVID credentials and the Maldives has the IMUGA website. Once those forms are completed, the desk agents and passport control simply check your QR code and that’s it. But, inter-island transfer limited by any COVID outbreaks.  Bit like having region or even town-specific lockdowns.  Multi-island visits (like my tours) are a bit of a dice roll though there is low incidence of problems and they are dropping.  Our mixed itinerary was affected but a bit of juggle and it all worked out.
  • Conditions Conventional Wisdom: Specific medium-term weather was never a perfect science, but some general rules of thumb did apply to different months which on average would affect the general balance of conditions across a given week. In fact, speaking to a Maldivian during our stay, he said that he used to be able to have a general feel for how weather was going to be in a given period as he was growing up, but now he admits he simply doesn’t have a clue and just about anything can happen any time and the weather has gotten much more unpredictable. So just about any historical conventional wisdom about weather and house reef conditions (two major concerns of prospective visitors) is getting increasingly outdated in recent years
  • Wind, Wind, Wind: We have tended to travel in more “unsettled” periods of Maldivian year when it comes to weather – mid-summer and late-autumn. Especially, Lori (being of a “certain age”) quite enjoyed the gentle ocean breezes. However, this week’s trip was not wafting, but downright windy. And not just in gusts or periods in the day. But non-stop throughout the day. And through the night…so much so that we were regularly wakened by the howl of the blustery conditions outdoors.

Google mpa of resorts visited

Tour 2021: Amilla

Amilla - 2021 masks

I have two hard and fast rules about the resorts I will visit on our tours:

  1. Never repeat a visit to a resort.
  2. Always repeat visiting a Jason and Victoria Kruse resort.

Before their Amilla posting, I made the same exception to their Kurumba property visiting there 5 times. Hence, Tour 18 brought us to the Amilla for our 3rd stay and a chance to see the Kruse’s and their latest creations.

Why do I never repeat? Because I need to use my limited time in the Maldives to gather as much fresh material for the website and extend my first-hand experience of the destination as broadly as possible. I also love discovery and adventure which drives me to seek out and explore new places.

Why do I make an exception for Jason and Victoria? Because they are our soul mates in their love of the Maldives and how we manifest that adoration with creativity and contribution to others:

  • Genesis Soul Mate – Back in 2007, I had dabbled with throwing my collected research onto the web, but it was a visit to Kurumba which inspired me to put some real effort and investment into making the site more extensive. We were on a family holiday at Kurumba when one of the Maldivian servers came up to me and exclaimed, “You’re that Maldives Complete guy. We love your website.” On the heels of that, Jason reached out and invited me to come back to Kurumba and visit the other Universal properties and write about them. This was 2009, before social media (and before annoying “Influencer” types had flooded the web with lifestyle porn and annoying requests to resorts). That visit kick-started a supply of material and impetus to make Maldives Complete into the extensive compendium that it has become. The real launch of Maldives Complete was Jason’s embrace and encouragement.
  • Creativity / UX Soul Mates – From the outset, I never wanted to write that same old, palm-tree pablum that most travel writers churn and hosted celebrities spew out about the destination getting all gooey over the sunsets, pina coladas and blue waters. Yes, those are wonderful aspects to this paradise, but they have been so done to death. I wanted to dig out the truly distinctive and individual touches that each resort added as their bit of spice to this bucket list essential. Similarly, Jason and Victoria have never settled for just palm trees and pina coladas for their properties. Like a Golden Ticket “Got Talent” singer, they take an island and “make it their own” with their special touches, creative offerings and staff-friendly management.  They got Kurumba to punch-above-its-weight and have similarly transformed Amilla. The key reason that I shun re-visiting properties is that I want the adventure of discovering new things. And the key reason that I re-visit a Kruse place is that it always has new things. As much as I like spotting creatures (on land and underwater alike), I also like spotting distinctions. Special touches of care and creativity. And Amilla is one of those top spots where you can keep returning and be assured of lots of great and satisfying spottings. This trip, I identified 20 items to do “Best of the Maldives” posts about (in fact, I spotted 4 within 15 minutes of setting foot on the island). Their resorts are like the proverbial Zen river – you never spend the same day there.
  • Destination Soul Mates – We have met in Jason and Victoria a couple who love the Maldives as much as we do. As with Maldives Complete, you get the sense that their motivation is not about the money or career, but the sincere love of the destination.
  • Soul Mate Soul Mates – Jason and Victoria share a distinctive partnership collaborating to pool their energies and expertises to the best resort. In a similar fashion, my soul mate Lori is an essential partner to building Maldives Complete helping with input, insights and her equally extensive experience of coming to this 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

BA Direct to the Maldives (Sort of)

BA Direct flight

Last January, BA resumed it summer direct service to the Maldives, the only UK direct service available. Until then, it was only offering a winter sun service. But when the lock-down relaxation roadmap was announced then, it was key that vaccination penetration was one of the main considerations of whether UK would give countries the “Green” light. At the time, the Maldives boasted one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world so it seemed a sure thing that they would be at the front of the pack. While others like dithered about the risks, we jumped on the opportunity for a direct flight for our annual July tour. As a result, we were even able to use Avios points to pay for our booking. Everything was starting to look up.

And then a few months later, the “Delta variant” hit. And as its erstwhile moniker, the “Indian variant” would imply, it hit the Indian Ocean destination early and hard plunging the Maldives into the Red list. Fairly soon after, we received notice that our flight has been cancelled. So we called BA to see what to do.

On the plus side, despite being an Avios trip which usually has considerable booking date restrictions, BA let us change our flights to any date we wanted. We thought of just moving the whole thing to the following summer during our traditional July period. But BA informed us that the summer direct service would be discontinued (again) in 2022. So we settled for November which is usually a relatively lighter month for resorts.

Despite the COVID flexibility, the run up to the departure was a bit fraught with difficulties.

  • System glitches: We paid hundreds of pounds for extra-leg room seats (given my height). A week before the flight, I went to double check that everything was all okay in the “Manage My Booking” section. For some reason, it would even let me see seat selection. I assumed that it was because we had already chosen our seats. Then, when we started the pre-flight COVID paperwork a few days before the flight, we could see our seats an they were no longer extra leg room at all.
  • Terrible Customer Service: I tried for two days to get through to BA customer service on the phone to try to fix the problem. I got the now ancient “due to usually high call volume” (that has been that “unusually high” for decades now), you may have to wait. But after running through the barrage of menu selections (where they try to foist you off to a computerised recording), I final got to the point where they said, “Unfortunately, no customer agents are available right now. Please try back later.” And line went dead.

As a courtesy for their mix up, the gate agent offered us complimentary access to the BA Lounge which saved us a bit of money from going to Gordon Ramsay for a pre-flight nibble. Their replacement to their buffet (due to concerns over COVID spreading) was intriguing as you ordered your food online and gave them the number of where you were sitting and they brought the food to you.

In the end, we were stuck in the very rear of the plane for the long (10+ hour) red-eye flight. Extra legroom seats are sort of “poor man’s business class” which we were disappointed to miss out on. But we did luck out on “impoverished man’s business class”…a 4-seat row to ourselves. When we booked our seats, we saw just a couple empty rows at the back of the plane. We each took an aisle seat in the hopes that being sat n the middle between us would be the last place subsequent set bookers would choose. And it worked out.  Another bonus is the BA in-flight wifi which is allowing me to post this piece from 30,000 feet.

Our flight was a pretty much typical of post-COVID traveling – lots of changes and complexities that aren’t always handled that adeptly, but with a bit of perseverance and luck, you can be back traveling again.

To compare airline experiences, I have now added the tag “Flights” to the blog.